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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

A Parent's Life A Parent's Life

Sending Your Child Off to College

August 12, 2013

By Claire McCarthy

Boston Children's Hospital

Somehow it catches you by surprise when your child is leaving for college. It shouldn't; after all you talked about this day, sent off the applications, picked the school, and celebrated graduation.

But as the day approaches, it still feels strange — and sudden. This is a huge milestone. And the reality of having a child leave home can be very different from what you expected.

As you and your teen approach the packing-the-car day, here are a few things to think about and do.

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Expect an Emotional Roller Coaster

A friend of mine once joked that the purpose of senior year — and especially senior summer — was to make us really want to get rid of our kids.

There's some truth to that, actually. So much is going on emotionally for teens at this time. They want independence (sometimes more than you want to give) and, at the same time, they are a little scared by the idea of leaving home (sometimes more than they want to admit).

And so much is going on for you emotionally, as well. You have mixed feelings, too. You want your child gone, yet you want him to stay. So ...

  • Acknowledge the feelings with your teen and talk about them. However, not all teens want to talk about them.


  • If your teen is worried about going away, don't immediately dismiss the concerns and say everything will be fine. Give your child a chance to talk about it.


  • Take a deep breath, bite your tongue, or go for a walk. Do whatever it takes so that you can take that step back. Getting angry and emotional doesn't help anything.

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Get Prepared

There's actually a lot to do to get ready for college. It only adds to the stress when you try to cram it all in the week before your child leaves.

  • Make sure you know deadlines for sending back forms, health insurance information and the like; put due dates on a calendar or stick them on a bulletin board.


  • Get as much information from the college as you can about what your child should (and shouldn't) bring. Make lists and plan your shopping. (Spreading out the purchases helps the checking account, as well.)

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Talk Money and Budgets

This will likely be a foreign concept for your teen, but it's crucial.

  • Let your teen know how your contribution for college is fitting into the family budget, so that they understand why you have less cash to give!


  • Set up a checking account with a debit card for your child. If it's linked to your account it helps with transfers — and monitoring.


  • Agree on how much spending money you will give. Also decide whether you will give it as a lump sum or in monthly payments. Help your teen understand what that amount buys — and what it doesn't.

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Set Expectations

Let your teen know what you will tolerate both behaviorally and academically. If your child is over 18 and tuition is totally on his dime, you don't have much say. But if you are helping to pay, it's totally appropriate to have expectations. Just understand that experimenting is part of being a freshman, and rude academic awakenings are common.

Be aware that if your child is over 18, the college probably won't share any information with you without you child's consent; talk with your teen about this. Personally, I think it's reasonable to say that you need access to certain information before you agree to write large checks.

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Be Cool When It's Time To Say Goodbye

Avoid the cute pet names. Treat your child like an adult. Don't be hurt if your child seems to push you away or doesn't snuggle into that hug. It's about making first impressions, after all.

Follow your child's lead in terms of how long to stay and what to do to help. If you want to have an emotional goodbye discussion, it might be better to do it in the car on the way there so your child can slip right into the college persona when your arrive.

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Keep in Touch, But Don't Hover

Come to an understanding about frequency of contact. Every teen is different. For some, once a week is stifling (although I think it's a good minimum); others will want to check in daily for a while.

New technologies such as text messages and Skype make communication with teens easier. It shouldn't be difficult to find a way of communicating that makes everyone happy. If your teen persistently wants daily contact and seems unhappy, you should probably connect him or her to support services at the college.

It can be hard to say goodbye. But think of this time as the next stage in your child's life, just like walking came after crawling and elementary school came after preschool. Your relationship will change, but that's okay — it's as it should be. Your child is beginning the adult phase of life and entering the bigger world; this is exciting. So take a deep breath, drive away, and be happy for your child.

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Claire McCarthy, M.D., is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, an attending physician at Children's Hospital of Boston, and medical director of the Martha Eliot Health Center, a neighborhood health service of Children's Hospital. She is a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications.

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