Why It Feels So Terrible to Drop Your Kid at College

The freedom of adulthood makes parents lose touch with dread, and emptying the nest offers a certain, and sometimes unwelcome, return to it.

A drawing of a young woman sitting alone in a dorm room, on a typewriter
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For an adult who is no longer young but not yet old, there is perhaps no better preparation for death than sending a child to college.

That’s not because it’s a reminder of the ceaseless march of age, though it is. It’s not because it unleashes a stampede of wild memories, though it does. And it’s not because it’s a moment that marks multiple beginnings and endings, although those fires do ignite and extinguish.

It’s because adulthood distances you from the experience of dreading things that are certain to come about eventually. It’s not that you dread more things, or graver things, when you’re a kid—time seems to lurch slowly, death seems long off, bills don’t stack up, and all the rest. But for young people, dread for small things feels constant. They aren’t in as much direct control of their lives as adults are, and many things feel like they happen to them. By adulthood, that relationship with dread wanes (even if others, like the shadow of certain death, wax). Sending your child away to school offers a taste of that particular flavor of fate—as well as an inspiration to manage it more deliberately.

Youth is actually pretty traumatic. For some, of course, merely getting through the day is a trial, because of poverty, or prejudice, or any manner of other obstacles. But even the fortunate younger person experiences continual, violent change, and from a very early age. The comfort of home gives way to the distance of school. Your own will is subordinated to the choices of your guardians, which often seem arbitrary and capricious. That plays out on fractal scales, from cross-country moves to inconvenient errands. The moment you become acclimated, all the terms change again. One school erupts into another. Friends arrive and vanish again. Your body transforms completely, devouring itself and regurgitating a foreigner. Urgent pressures to perform, often detached from any meaningful reason, mount one atop the other. Childhood and adolescence are hardly awful on the whole, but nor are they the idylls adults sometimes romanticize.

During that period, kids develop an expertise in looming dread. Dread is different from fear or worry, because it takes a clear and specific object. You fear change, but dread moving. You worry about money, but dread paying that big holiday-season credit-card bill. You worry about work, but dread the big sales presentation. Dread arises from the looming shadow of certainty, while fear tracks the murky unknown.

When you are young, dread is frequent—almost constant. Life is out of your hands. After middle school, you know that high school comes next. The SAT date is on the calendar. Times are set, and choices are made on your behalf, without consultation.

Dread is fueled by powerlessness, rather than by sorrow, and there’s more reason for kids to feel impotent these days with the internet and smartphones. Anxiety has overtaken depression among teenagers—kids are bombarded with so many demands that are nonnegotiable (or that they perceive to be), they become overwhelmed by the accompanying dread. As the ASU psychologist Suniya Luthar told The New York Times last year, teenagers “never get to the point where they can say, ‘I’ve done enough, and now I can stop.’”

Those conditions are worse now, but they are not wholly different than they were for previous generations. For anyone alive with a child ready to head off to school, their own life wasn’t so entirely different from their kids that they can’t empathize.

But the memory of dread fades over time. When it goes well, (or even just well enough) adulthood is terrific. You have obligations, sure, but a lot more of them are under your own control. Now you decide where to live, where to work, how to spend leisure time—and begin imposing those choices on kids, when you have them. There are a lot of people struggling just to get by for whom dread may still be a common feeling. But for those who can get by, dread’s frequency and intensity recedes. There are fewer things that impose themselves upon you without some negotiation—especially major life changes over which one usually has some control.

Going off to college represents an unusual, shared experience of dread for parents and their children alike. It’s asymmetrical—young people are anxious about starting school for different reasons than their parents are anxious about them leaving—but contemporaneous, and pointed at a shared life event. That makes the college departure a rare opportunity for parents to rekindle their relationship with dread, and maybe even to reform it.

There’s plenty of advice for parents about the emotional and material trials of a kid leaving home. But often it focuses on the parenting side of that equation. Help your kids hone problem-solving skills on their own, boost their own confidence, seek out aid independently, or manage their time effectively. It all makes sense, but it feels so soulless, so instrumental. These appeals sometimes paint the parental experience in the tritest way possible, too: “It seems like time went so fast — you blinked and now your baby is 18.” The concluding advice offered to parents amounts to, “let go.”

That’s good advice, up to a point. But it obscures another lesson. Facing the dread of a kid’s departure should remind parents that they’ve lost touch with dread itself. Planning for the future is familiar by now. But facing the certainty of something you know will come to pass, and finding that you are woefully unprepared for it—that’s a less familiar feeling.

Indeed, preparing for it might be impossible. I suppose you could take heed of move-in day, circling it on the kitchen calendar and working backwards toward acceptance. But that’s unlikely, at least the first time around. No matter how excited you are on your child’s behalf (and you should be—you must be), no rationalizing can prepare you for the emotional vacuum that ensues. The startling, lonely drive or flight back home is just day one. Then it habituates—the empty room whose floorboards don’t creak too late at night; the unexpected savings on the grocery bill once those funds are diverted to an expensive campus meal plan; the expected but still-lengthy delays between a text message sent and one received.

It turns out to be a hard lesson to learn. I just sent my oldest child back to college for a third year. The dread was still pronounced on both sides, if more compressed and muted. A few days of violent nail-biting on his part once packing became an inevitability. A more muted rush to partake of last-minute activities, knowing now that they function as symbols more than experiences. A well-worn rather than acute anxiety at the airport. The human spirit is resilient, and it is no less a trauma than a comfort that the heart grows accustomed to things.

But back home, all manner of dreads still awaited me. A younger child, still in high school, whose similar departure is likewise inevitable, but for which I have done just as little mental preparation. The fate of aging parents, too, as I now foresee becoming one myself, eventually. The slow wear of chronic health conditions. The certainty that, eventually, lugging the trash bins up the steep driveway will become physically challenging. The big, secondary trunk of a tall tulip poplar that will need to come down someday, maybe soon.

Surely there must be a flipside to dread, a way of turning the problem around so as to manage it better.

It’s not rationalism or planning, although those are tempting answers. You can’t defang the bite of anguish by rehearsing it—that would be like preparing for laughter by going over a joke in advance. The emotional response can’t be separated from the act.

It’s not tolerance or forbearance either. To say that you’ll “get used to it” is both true and insufficient. People get used to all manner of distresses—acclimation itself is hardly noble, and it implies that the future is something to be borne, not to enjoy. Pop-psychology fads like grit or resilience also disappoint, putting too much pressure on individuals to resolve their own spiritual distress.

The alternative is so obvious, it’s easy to look past it. The way to react to, or prepare for, a foreseeable and certain but unfamiliar reality is to begin living in it as soon as possible. For parents of college kids, that means developing a new relationship with your kid as an adult rather than a child or adolescent. You can’t really practice that until they become one. The emotional nadir when you drop your kid off at college is your gut reminding you to do it, to start right now. But even if you don’t heed that call right away, it’s never too late.  The future always feels uncertain, but in truth it’s the one thing that is guaranteed to come to pass. The best way to face it is to transform it into the present the moment it arrives, because that is where you live—and your kids too, and everyone and everything else.