As our college student heads off to college, we may be feeling the “empty nest” syndrome, even though there are still other children at home. The family is different now, with one or more students off to college. We know that things are different and we work to adjust to the new family dynamic. However, parents and college students are not the only ones making an adjustment. When our college student leaves home, siblings remaining at home will be feeling the change, and the loss, as well. There are some things that we can think about as parents, and that we can help our college student to think about, to make this adjustment go smoothly for siblings remaining at home.
Obviously, how we deal with siblings at home will depend on their age. A sibling in high school, approaching college himself, will have different perceptions and needs than a young child. Family dynamics are also unique and vastly different. But certain actions and conversations may be helpful to anyone.
Before your student leaves for school
- Encourage your college student to talk about feelings with siblings. Is he excited about college? Is he nervous? Is he a little sad or worried about leaving the family? Helping a sibling to understand that the college student may have some conflicted feelings may help her to deal with and talk about her own feelings and may make the leaving process less mysterious and overwhelming.
- Encourage your college student to be patient with her sibling. As exciting as it is, the leave-taking process is stressful for everyone. Tempers may be short and emotions may be running high. Your college student may need to be a bit more patient with her sibling and may need to work to understand his feelings and reasons for his actions. It is a stressful time for those left at home as well as for the student who will be leaving.
- Your college student might invite his sibling to become involved in the process and help him get ready. He can help him pack, or make lists, or shop. This will remind the sibling that he will not be shut out of your college student’s life and the college experience.
- Your college student might ask the sibling to make him something to take to college with him. It might be a picture, an art or craft project or anything else that the sibling can create.
- Encourage your college student to spend a bit of extra time with her sibling. The summer before college is a busy time: students are working, packing, preparing, and usually trying to spend as much time as possible with friends. A bit of extra time spent with her sibling will remind the sibling that she hasn’t been, and won’t be, forgotten.
Once your college student has left for school
- Remember that once your college student has left, the family dynamic will change. The sibling (or siblings) remaining at home will now have a new position in the family. Perhaps responsibilities will change. Perhaps activities may change. Room arrangements may even change. Be sensitive to the upheaval the sibling may be experiencing.
- Consider giving the sibling a journal or notebook in which she can document important activities or thoughts to share with the college student when he returns.
- Encourage the sibling to communicate with the college student through phone conversations, e-mail, snail mail or text messaging. A younger sibling can draw and send pictures or school papers to share.
- Encourage your college student to stay in touch with his sibling. He can call or write, talk to his sibling when he calls home, or even consider letting a sibling visit campus if that is practical.
- Allow a sibling to help prepare a care package to send to the college student. She can think about what should be included and can help gather or make items.
When your college student returns home
- Remember when your college student returns home that the family dynamic will change once again. Your student will need to remember that things at home may have changed while she was away. Young siblings will have grown, siblings will have a new place in the family and may have different attitudes and responsibilities.
- Be sensitive to the at-home sibling when the college student returns. You will be happy to have your college student home for a visit, but don’t ignore the at-home child. Find ways to do things together, if possible.
- Encourage your college student to find some special time to spend with his sibling while he is home. This is a good opportunity to reconnect.
- Be prepared to navigate changing and differing expectations and rules when your student returns home. There may now be some double-standards or different rules for the college student and her younger siblings.
Sibling relationships are some of the most unique and enduring relationships in our lives. These relationships change and grow throughout our lives. With a little bit of forethought and attention, the changes that occur between siblings during the college years can be productive and exciting and can strengthen the relationship for years to come.