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Opinion: Tips for parents of college students during COVID-19 uncertainty

Carey Monroe

Even though I work in higher education admissions, I admit I’m nervous to send my son back to his campus out of state. It’s a normal feeling for parents this fall, when sending our kids to college feels like thrusting them into an unmapped world.

It’s hard enough to send your kid to college in a normal year, but add a global pandemic to it and the anxiety reaches new heights. I worry that my son won’t be as safe as I want him to be, wearing masks and maintaining social distance with the friends he’s missed so much.

Still, I’m sending him, and as he rightly pointed out, he could contract COVID-19 here at home or in a residence hall somewhere else. The risk exists all across our country, and we have to trust that the parenting I’ve practiced for the past 18 years will stick with him as he leaves.

It’s never easy for a parent to send a kid away, Monroe writes. She is pictured here with her family.

Every year, I comfort and encourage parents who are dropping off their children on the campus where I work. I’ve dried tears and patted backs and reassured them that those of us who work on campus care about their children, too. We’ll look out for them, we’re here for when they face challenges, and we’re here for parents, too.

Whether it’s a first child leaving the nest or the youngest and now the nest is empty, it’s never easy for a parent to send a kid away. And, even if you’ve planned and prepared for this for a long time, and your child is good and ready to go, the emotions will bubble up regardless.

When you close the door to the car and drive away, seeing them wave in the rear view mirror, the tears will come and that’s OK. When a child reaches adulthood and leaves home, it’s a major milestone for the whole family.

Both of my children are college students. One lives at home and commutes, while the other goes to school three states south. When I sent my son out-of-state, I decided to take the advice that I’ve been offering parents in my professional capacity for years. Here’s what I suggest:

► Establish clear communication expectations. Parents assume their kids are going to miss them as much as they miss their kids, and they’ll be texting all the time. They don’t. So set an expectation of a weekly call even before they leave. In my house, my kids know they won’t get a weekly allowance if I don’t get at least one call.

► Be a reassuring voice. Whether your kid gets COVID-19 and has to quarantine on campus or they’re nervous about making friends, be the voice that tells them it’s all going to be fine. You may be screaming inside, but don’t let them know that. Reassuring them that they made the right decision to go to college is our most important job.

► Let go of the illusion of control. Our job as parents is to, bit by bit, let our children go out into the world and learn to make their own decisions. If we’ve done our job well, going to college should be easy for them. It’s time for them to go. Be encouraging. Don’t hold on too tightly.

► Turn the focus to you. How many years has it been since you and your partner have done something not kid-related? For many parents, their whole life is about their kids and their activities. Now is the time to reconnect with the important adult relationships in your life. Rekindle the romance. Find a hobby. Make plans with friends. Reinvigorate your own interests and relationships.

► It’s OK to cry. When I left my son for the first time in another state, I cried the whole ride home and found myself weeping spontaneously for about two weeks. It’s OK, and it’s normal! Feel the feels, and let it run its course. Eventually, while you’ll still miss them, that huge feeling of loss will subside and you’ll be able to wish them well on their journey through life.

Carey Monroe is vice president of enrollment management for Cleary University in Howell.

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