When a child goes to college, there’s an enormous transition for every family member.
While we tend to focus on the effect a child’s leaving has on the parents, it’s equally hard on the siblings.
From the eleventh grade, when test preparation begins, and college planning becomes part of the household banter, there is a shift felt among the siblings.
It becomes known that someone will be leaving, and the rest of the kids will be staying home with their parents. It’s an almost impossible concept to wrap your head around, especially if you are a young sibling.
The preparation process for college can be a long and arduous one.
It’s a stressful process to get into college.
There are multiple rounds of tests which often include tears of frustration. Once a score is settled, you focus on helping your student identify several schools which would be a good fit for your child.
The mood of the house tenses as your child writes various essays conveying why they are a great candidate for a college.
There is the stress of senior year and keeping up with an already grueling schedule full of schoolwork, clubs, sports, music, drama, and friends.
There are celebrations with acceptances and tears with rejections. All the while, the siblings are helplessly watching their hero flounder in frustration.
It is an exhausting and exciting time.
The college prep process is a two-year stressor that takes over your child’s life and yours.
Sometimes we forget how this process deeply impacts younger siblings.
The bittersweet emotions parents feel when sending kids off to college can be overwhelming. You are proud and excited for your college-bound teen but also anxious about the unknown. You may feel remorseful about the things you didn’t get to do before your child left home. Anxiety may spike about the unknown.
We raise them to leave us, but it still hurts.
Siblings may feel the same way.
Your other children are watching. Or, perhaps they’re ignoring or denying the situation by focusing on their interests instead.
They may also feel left out and like nothing is about them.
The college prep process can be all-consuming, and it may be the only thing that has your attention.
Without realizing it, you may become more emotionally unavailable to your other children and unable to listen to their issues, spend time with them, or help with homework problems.
You may not realize that getting your teen into college has taken over your entire world.
So what can be done to help the siblings feel included in the college process?
Four things to keep younger siblings involved in the college process
First, whenever possible, include the whole family in college tours.
The college-bound student wants to feel comfortable with where they will be living next. Parents are also stressed about it. And siblings are just curious and feeding off of everyone else’s emotions.
It is an unknown stressor, and seeing the campus will make everyone feel better. If siblings cannot take the tour, parents can give them a virtual tour online or through photos. The point is to make the siblings feel like they are part of the process and still a part of their big brother or sister’s life. This is particularly helpful for young children who don’t yet understand college.
Seeing the buildings on campus and the surrounding area helps children understand that their older sibling is living in a safe place and what they’re doing every day.
Second, give them a task.
One sweet idea is for younger siblings to make “Open When Envelopes.” These are a series of envelopes or small packages full of little gifts and notes to be opened at specific times.
For example, “OPEN WHEN…You’re lonely,” can include a blanket, a stuffed animal, or a coffee card. “OPEN WHEN…You miss me,” can include an inside joke or sentimental letter between the siblings. It can be just a note or a small gift. “OPEN WHEN…You’re sick,” can include tea and cough drops.
Third, whenever possible, let the sibling come with you to campus.
When the big drop-off day comes, siblings should be included. Let them carry things up to their new dorm room. Walk around the campus together and explore the buildings, A family event in saying, “goodbye for now” is important for everyone.
However, if the college-bound child does not want the entire family to attend drop off, or if everyone cannot go, have a special goodbye at home the night before he or she leaves.
Four, set a time for them to stay connected
Younger children often look to older siblings to support, guide and even lead them in life. It is important to encourage communication between your college teen and their siblings. Parents should also talk with your college kid about their siblings who are still at home.
It is natural for them to be so focused on what they are experiencing that they may lose sight of the people they are leaving behind. A quick text, regularly scheduled call or FaceTime/Google Chat communicates that they still care and are still there for there.
There will be a grieving period for the siblings left behind.
After the college teen leaves, there’s a feeling of grief and guilt for feeling sad. This feeling is rarely discussed because of the shame associated with feeling sad about a happy event.
Isn’t this the way things are supposed to be?
Isn’t the goal of parenting is to have your child fly when they become adults?
It’s not like they are going off to war or they died. So do you even have the right to be sad?
You need to allow your other children to mourn and be sad about missing their sibling. There is a void in your family, a deep emptiness, and you feel like you’re grieving.
This feeling is real and valid for both parents and kids left behind. You will adjust to this new paradigm, and you will feel happy again in time.
But right now, you need to focus on readjusting your family dynamic.
Some children feel more upset about their sibling leaving than others–and that’s okay.
Siblings can go through an enormous transition when the oldest leaves. The youngest may now be the only child left at home, or the middle sibling becomes the oldest in the home, and their roles shift.
Siblings can even experience empty nest syndrome just as the parents do when their brother or sister leaves for college. Even if there are still other children at home, the loss can be deeply felt.
Everyone in a family is connected, and when one family member leaves home, it can disrupt the entire system. This change needs to be addressed and managed.
There are constant reminders that their sibling is gone. It could be an empty room that is hard to walk by. It might be that someone different gives them a ride home from school or is no longer around to play video games. Even the dog may set up vigil outside the door or on their bed.
The empty space at the dinner table is may look like a glaring hole. And while you may miss their simple presence, it’s also all the things that go along with them, such as friends, activities, or even shows you watched together.
A sibling moving away can feel like a huge loss to all involved, but especially to a younger sibling.
It may be the first loss your younger children ever encountered.
But it also can be an opportunity for growth. Kids who previously relied on an older sibling may become more independent and take on new challenges and responsibilities. They may also spend more one-on-one time with their parents.
Try to create new routines and focus on keeping the other children occupied. Create some new family traditions, but also keep the old ones in place whenever possible.
The goal is for everyone in the family to feel important and loved. No one is left out. Different living situations don’t change that.
Most importantly, validate how all your kids may be feeling, no matter how silly it may seem at the time. It’s not always a smooth transition, and the feeling of missing their older sibling can last several weeks or even months.
And in the rare cases when children may seem depressed or anxious about their sibling, consider speaking to their doctor, school social worker, or a mental health professional for help.
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