Over the next few weeks, thousands of teenagers will head off to university for the first time. These are trying times for their parents, worn down by demands for new laptops and kettles while nervously anticipating the prospect of their own empty nests and gauging their offspring’s chance of surviving freshers’ week.
But no matter how frayed tempers get, when the moment arrives to say goodbye it’s always hard.
Charles Lewis, professor of family psychology at Lancaster University, says: “I’m sure when many parents drive away they dissolve in tears in a lay-by because the realisation of what parting actually feels like is so totally different from the anticipation. When it actually happens there are real, deep feelings of loss.”
Forward thinking can take the edge off the day. In my experience it helps to plan your journey, decide who else is coming along – their boyfriend? your ex? – and whether to stay the night nearby.
That can work well, because it allows you to keep popping back when you’re needed, to stock up on stuff you’ve forgotten, and to say goodbye in a less hectic style. But it’s wise to find something to do with your evening, because with any luck you won’t be needed at all.
Helping them with the practicalities
Sorting out practical matters in advance will also make you feel better, because you’ll feel more confident that your child can cope. Last-minute reminders about safe sex and bike lights will only ratchet up the tension, but you could write a (non-bossy) list that gives a rough idea about random stuff like how often to wash sheets and towels, how long a sandwich will last out of the fridge and so on.
For Johnny Rush of the independent university guide Push, money is key. He says: “Open the conversation about money before your child leaves. In some families money is never discussed and that’s dangerous because your son or daughter may not have the financial expertise to avoid debt.
“They may also feel they can’t talk to you if they do get into financial trouble. It’s important that they know they can.”
Remember that beneath your child’s (let’s face it, hurtful) eagerness to get away from home, they’re feeling nervous, too. Rebecca, now 25, remembers how she felt when she first arrived at her halls of residence: “I had spent so much time thinking about university and the whole process of getting there, but I hadn’t thought about what happened beyond that point, or about the fact that I really was going to be on my own,” she says.
“I was horrified when my parents said they were leaving. I don’t think I knew what I wanted: I was upset that they’d left me but I definitely wouldn’t have wanted them to hang around because that would have looked so uncool.”
Such a sense of anti-climax after all the hype is not unusual. The first few weeks aren’t always wonderful and, if that’s the case, life is miserable both for the student and their worried parents.
University counsellors say it’s best not to come home for the first few weeks and, while that makes a lot of sense, it’s gruelling when it’s your precious child who is unhappy.
One sensible mother I know made her daughter a deal: if she stuck it out for the first term, and was still miserable at Christmas, she could leave or change course. It worked: by half-term she loved it.
Tips for a smooth transition
Discuss finances together. Work out what the student loan will cover (holiday times as well as terms?), estimate the shortfall, and point out the big expenses they need to hold money back for. Then discuss how much you are able to chip in and whether they’ll need to get a holiday job.
When you arrive at the hall of residence, leave them to it. Take yourself shopping or to a gallery for a couple of hours then go back later to see how they’re getting on before saying goodbye.
Plan fabulous things to do to their empty bedroom when you get home.
Explore your child’s new patch with them when you arrive. It’s important that they don’t miss these crucial early friend-making opportunities.
Cry when you say goodbye (at least, try not to). This is their moment: save your tears for the loo or the lay-by.
Say “In my day…”.
Rent out their old bedroom straight away or let a younger sibling move into it, unless you really have to. University counsellor Ruth Caleb says, “It may seem unreasonable to keep the room just for them to come back to in the holidays, but the room is symbolic of your child’s right to be in that home. To use it for some other purpose denies that.”
Encourage your teenager to keep coming home for the weekend, no matter how much you miss them. Help them to see it takes time to settle, and that no one finds it easy at first (no matter how it looks). You could visit instead.