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College time creates empty-nesters

By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia

Starting college can be a big adjustment for a student. It also can begin a period of separation and anxiety for parents.

When a child starts school for the first time, the child and parents are usually only separated for a few hours a day. But a college-bound young adult can go months without seeing parents and be separated by hundreds of miles, said Don Bower, an Extension human development specialist with the University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

"This is a time of adjustment for parents," Bower said.

Adjustment time

Whether the student lives at home or moves away, going to college is a big step toward adulthood, he said.

Randy Harris' 19-year-old daughter, Jennifer, decided to stay at home and attend a local junior college. She commutes to class.

"This has helped me adjust to her being in college," Harris said, "because she's still at home every night."

Unlike Harris, most parents will experience a sense of loss often called the "empty nest syndrome," Bower said.

At first, parents may look forward to more free time, less loud music and not having to fight for the phone, computer or car. But after their child has settled at college, they may feel differently.

"They begin to notice how quiet it is without the student at home and comment on how much less they spend on groceries," Bower said.

Many parents may not be ready to give up their roles as primary caregivers and protectors.

"Successful parenting involves devoting one's life to a totally dependent baby," Bower said, "then gradually preparing them to become independent."

Parents need a new focus

But when the student leaves, it can be difficult for parents to adjust when they are no longer needed in the same ways.

"When students are in college, parents are less privy to every aspect of their child's life," he said. The parents often don't know the details of the student's whereabouts or friends.

"Parents must realize that young adults will make their own decisions - and hope for the best," Bower said.

To help with the adjustment, parents should redirect the time and energy they once focused on the child. "It can be time to develop, reawaken and pursue old and new hobbies, leisure activities and careers," he said.

Parents can also welcome and develop an adult-to-adult relationship with the child. "Children always need parents," he said. "But the relationship may become more peer-like."

They should encourage their children to make independent decisions. Mike Dyche of Griffin, Ga., saw his daughter, Courtney, develop as an adult during the time she spent at the New York Film Academy.

"Moving from Georgia to New York was a big change for both of us," he said. "The experience helped her become more responsible and helped her develop a strong sense of independence."

Now that she's had the experience of living on her own, his daughter has decided to return to Georgia to continue her education.

"If she had lived in a dormitory, it would still have been a home-based setting," Dyche said. "Living on her own in New York City was a life-building experience. She plans to go back to New York to live and work when she finishes her education."

No matter what age your child reaches, parents will always be parents and worrying is part of the job description.

As the father of a commuting college student, Harris doesn't have to worry about his daughter being away from home at night. But he still worries.

"Now I worry about her driving the further distance every day," he said.

(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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