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An Empty Seat at the Table

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Submitted by Rick Lavoie, Author, Lecturer, Consultant

Preparing Your Child (and You) for Transition to College

For 30 years, I served as an administrator of residential schools for Special Needs students. One of my responsibilities was designing the Autumn Arrival Day…the day that parents dropped their kids off at school.

I shudder to think of the advice and directions that I gave to my colleagues as we prepared for the “big day”:

Get the parents back on-the-road as soon as possible after they arrive. Don’t let them linger. Don’t feed them. Don’t let them unpack. In and out. We need to make the separation quickly…so we can focus on the kids.

I thought that I was right. I knew I was. But I could not have been more wrong.

When did I recognize the error or my ways? The day my wife and I dropped our first born off at college.

For the first time, I realized the tremendous impact that residential programs have on the family. As I watched our son enter his college dorm among hundreds of strangers, I realized that our family was about to make a significant, life-changing transformation.  There would be an empty seat at the table. I wasn’t ready…and I could only hope that he was.

After that life altering experience, I totally redesigned our Arrival Days and created a welcoming, family-friendly environment that featured meals, seminars, and social events. If you are reading this, and you sent your child to my school early in my career…sorry!

Below are some Do’s and Don’ts as you prepare for this transition.

  •  DO anticipate a challenging summer. 

The parents’ goals for this pre-departure summer are diametrically opposed to the child’s. Mom and Dad want a final summer of family activities, togetherness, and group hugs. The kid’s goal is to have an amazing last summer with his buddies.

The result?  Conflict

The solution? Compromise

  •  DO anticipate moodiness.

As the student recognizes the finality and inevitability of the transition, she may become anxious and troubled.  This may manifest itself in refusal to pack, fill out forms, etc.

The result? Dawdling, unresponsiveness, oppositional behavior.

The solution? Kids need love most when they deserve it least.

  •  DO make, maintain, and keep a schedule.

With the child, make a list of all the chores and activities that need to be done (shopping, packing, summer reading assignments) and create a calendar together.  In this way, the schedule (not mom or dad) can do the nagging.

The problem?  Overwhelmed

The solution? Organization and structure

  •  DO conduct some crash courses.

Hold lessons in basic laundry, cooking, ironing, and finances in order to prepare her for independence.

The problem? Lack of basic skills

The solution? Knowledge

  •  DO embrace your new role as his “coach”.

Remember: a coach never goes on the field or kicks the field goal or gets up at bat. A good coach teaches the fundamentals and then stays on the sidelines offering guidance, advice, comfort, and encouragement.

The reality? He is “on his own”.

The solution? Attitude adjustment (yours and his!)

  •  DON’T burden her with your sadness.

Let her know that she will be greatly missed, but don’t make her feel guilty by sharing your grief over this transition.

The problem? Parental grief results in increased homesickness.

The solution? Call your best friend and cry with her!

  •  DON’T make a “bail out” deal.

By saying, “If you don’t like the school by October first, we can talk about you coming home...”, the child will have no reason to commit to “making it work”.

The problem? Anxiety

The solution? Encouragement

  •  DO encourage him to discuss his concerns and anxieties with older siblings or cousins.

They can offer advice and reassurance because of their recent college experiences.

The problem?  The child needs assurance.

The solution? Your tales of your 1980’s college days, Tom Petty concerts, and Pac Man tournaments won’t work.

A Final Word

The “empty nest” has positive and negative aspects. A wise person once counseled that the parent should find a constructive use of the “kid time” that is now “free time”. Invest that time in yourself by resurrecting some old dreams.

"It is not through care giving that a woman looks for replenishment of purpose in the second half of her life. It is through cultivating talents left half-finished, permitting ambitions once shelved…becoming an aggressor in the service of her own convictions rather than a passive/aggressive party to someone else’s." Anonymous

Sound advice!

Learn more about Rick Lavoie's work through his website.

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