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College Prep: Getting Emotionally Ready

Congratulations! Your child has gotten into college and is starting this fall. What do you need to know?

Leaving home for the first time can be, and often is, difficult for your child. Assuming they had a good enough experience growing up in your household, they are ambivalent about leaving (little though they may say so to you).

In fact, what you may hear is the very opposite. There are constant arguments about how tired they are of living under your thumb and ridiculous rules. You know very little about how life is truly lived these days anyway, due to your age, narrow view of the world, etc., etc., etc.

You have to retool your habits, expectations and emotions 180 degrees in a few short months

Or, you see them so infrequently that they say nothing to you at all. You rarely interact with them and wonder what difference it will make to them to be out of the house entirely.

Possibility No. 3 is that they seem so worried about leaving home and so tuned out to all the tasks surrounding their departure that you question how they are ever going to manage once they leave hearth, home and your support.

RELATED: What to do With Your Kids' Stuff Once They Leave Home

You, meanwhile, are sad/glad/confused and nervous about the imminent departure of this creature you have zealously nurtured for the past 18 years. You have to retool your habits, expectations and emotions 180 degrees in a few short months—from protecting them to letting them go.

How do you manage these roiling emotions?

Take your cue from your children. While your kids may be exceedingly verbal, bright and highly capable, they are still leaving the protected cocoon of their home on their own, into a totally unknown environment. Don't immediately assume that they're not worried or don't still need your help.

Even if they want to spend as little time with you as possible, don't let them totally freeze you out. Take advantage of times they do need something from you, and insist that you do it together. Don't simply give them the credit card and send them off to buy their new college gear—make it a shopping trip together. Recall that some of the best conversations with teenagers can occur during those casual shared moments of just sitting in a car driving somewhere together. Keep up those family dinners even in the face of protests.

What about the child who is dissolving into a puddle on the floor at the mere thought of leaving? Don't panic. Remember what it was like when you left that same child howling when being dropped off at daycare. You stood around feeling guilty and panicky, then peeked into the window of his classroom and saw your child happily playing with his friends. The same dynamic is often repeating itself.

In fact, sometimes the children who are able to share their worries ahead of time may have it easier once they're away. In our family, the child who appeared the most prepared and stoic going into college ended up to be the one who called home the most after she got to school.

RELATED: A Guide to College Prep Over the Summer

As for the ones you doubted could ever manage to get from their dorm room to their classes on a daily basis? They may very well surprise you. One of my fondest memories of my son's college career was when he said, "I overslept and missed the bus on my last trip home, so I made sure to get up on time for this trip!"

I was pleased for two reasons: First, he had a great learning experience and second, I was not there to witness all the emotional fallout that accompanied this learning experience on that morning he missed the bus.

Get as much support as you can for yourself, from those who have gone through this process already.

And if they don't seem able to learn on their own? Encourage them to get support from those around them, on the college campus. Counselors, friends and RAs all can help with the transition. Hard as it may be to let go, this is their journey, and they need to start finding their own way.

Get as much support as you can for yourself, from those who have gone through this process already. Try not to focus on all the things you feel you need to do for them. This is your child's adventure. No matter what happens, she will be learning more about herself and her surrounding world.

RELATED: The Not-So Empty Nest

My next few stories will discuss specific situations you may encounter during your child's first few years away. In the meantime, remember what one colleague of mine, who had a son struggling tremendously with bipolar disorder during his teenage and young adult years, but is now an employed, married father of two: “Try not to take the ups and downs too seriously. In the long run, they will work it out and all the turmoil will fade away.”

Hang in there and take care of yourself!

RELATED: What to do With Your Kids' Stuff Once They Leave Home

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