By Kathy Zamostny, Ph.D.
Parents are increasingly aware of the challenges that the transition to college presents to their children and to themselves. Numerous books have been written to help students weather their first year at college (e.g., The Ultimate College Survival Guide) and to help parents adjust to the changes in their own lives (e.g.,Letting Go: A Parent's Guide to Understanding the College Years). Most universities schedule orientations for both first-time college students and parents to help them cope with the changes and demands of the freshman experience. However, the reality is that a child's departure to college affects all members of the family system--not only the student who is leaving and the parents who are letting them go--but also the siblings left behind.
When an older child leaves for college, it creates a hole in the family unit that presents both challenges and opportunities for those at home. On the one hand, younger siblings may experience a sense of loss when a close (or not so close) older sister or brother takes off for college that may be related to less support or companionship, or even a lower activity level with one less person in the home (e.g. fewer phones calls, fewer visitors). A younger child's role in the family may change with the absence of his big brother or big sister. For example, a second born child moves up to become the oldest, or perhaps an "only" kid at home---which can have drawbacks and benefits. Some younger children may experience increased pressure when an older sib is no longer around to split the attention and scrutiny of parents or to buffer parental demands and reprimands.
On the other hand, the children at home may gain more parental emotional support and attention with the college student away. Some younger siblings blossom socially when an older sibling leaves home, in part because there is more psychological space to grow and interact. Also, more physical space opens up—perhaps an extra bedroom that allows greater opportunities to entertain friends. In addition, the family car may become more available, time on the television or computer may be more abundant, and the house may feel more peaceful and quiet. An older child's absence might also strengthen the bonds among younger sibs as they adjust to their shared loss by forging new relationships.
Regardless of whether the younger sibling experiences an older sibling's absence as largely positive or negative, it still takes time to adjust to the changes, and it is realistic to expect that things might be rocky for a while. When the equilibrium of the family system is disturbed, everyone experiences stress without necessarily being aware of the source. One of the best coping strategies is to have realistic expectations for adjustment. If those left behind by the transitioning student prepare themselves for a little turbulence, they will cope more effectively.
Parents who understand their younger children's sense of loss when an older sib goes to college are in a better position to help. For example, parents might encourage the younger sib to find ways to stay in touch with the absent sib to keep their relationship active. Scheduling regular phone calls or emails are effective and easy ways to stay connected. Planning a special visit to campus for the child at home can reap benefits beyond strengthening the bond among the remaining children (e.g., exposes the younger child to the benefits of college). It also is helpful to encourage the younger child to develop other sources of support including other family members, friends, and activities.
The needs of the family system as a whole are important to consider during this transition time. For example, reestablishing some family traditions with a different configuration of members can feel comforting. In addition, the college transition presents a good opportunity for family members to try new activities and build new traditions. The family must recognize that it takes time, attention, and patience to regroup and thrive after a significant change.
Perhaps one of the most difficult challenges for family members coping with an older child's leave-taking for college is, ironically, adjusting to the student's homecoming---whether the return is for a long weekend or the holiday break or the summer. Reunions can be so loaded with conflicting emotions and agendas that they have the potential to explode into hurt feelings and confusion. While younger siblings might look forward to the return of a beloved older sibling whom they've sorely missed, they also may have adjusted to and moved beyond the hole created by the transition. Consequently, there may be resentments and irritations that surface when the college student returns. These negative reactions can be exacerbated if the college student expects things at home to have remained the same and attempts to reclaim physical and emotional space that has shifted. Conversely, problems may also arise because the college student has changed dramatically from living independently for a while and has problems returning home where rules and expectations have not changed. On a different note, younger sibs and parents alike may be expecting to spend quality time with their long-lost college student only to find that the returnee has scheduled dates with friends and is never home. Again, realistic expectations and planning (e.g., scheduling one family gathering or activity during the reunion rather than expecting a weekend-long love fest) as well as empathic understanding of the conflicting needs and feelings of each family member can go a long way toward weathering (and even enjoying) the reunion.
In closing, the transition to college can be difficult for those who are going and those who are left behind. Like all transitions, it is a time of passage—where the college student and the family are traveling to new destinations. At times the passage may be smooth and uneventful; but it also may be turbulent. Everyone in the family will be well-served by having realistic expectations, empathy, patience, and the realization that, even when things seem rocky, this too will pass.
Dr. Kathy Zamostny was a staff psychologist in the University Counseling Center and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Maryland.