The Reluctant Fledgling: Encouraging your child when she’s anxious about leaving the nest.


By Chris Little

You know the classic scenario: Mom, once eager for reluctant Junior to start grade school, ruefully sees the roles reverse when it’s time for Junior to leave for college. Of course, the classic scenario is only occasionally the truest one, and it’s not unusual for high school grads to be less than eager to leave the nest.

At this point, I don’t appear to be the parent of a reluctant fledgling, but I recall having been one, and I know people whose kid has been one, so I wanted to think about this facet of the emptying nest: What do you do when your kid doesn’t feel all that ready to leave home?

First of all, I guess we should consider the fact that some kids simply aren’t. That’s okay! Talk things over: Maybe a post-graduate year spent working at the local diner is a good fit—and/or doing an awesome internship at a nonprofit in town. Taking classes at your community college, or commuting to a school nearby, also might be a good way to ease into the next phase of life. All of that is perfectly fine and can help your kid get her feet under her before she leaves home.

Other times, you might know your kid is ready to leave the nest, and she might even know it too, but for a variety of reasons, she’s feeling some anxiety about it. I’ve been asking friends and reading up on some strategies for encouraging the reluctant fledgling:

1. Treat it all like a big adventure from the get-go. Focus on the positive: College is going to be a fun and interesting ride, for the most part, with some inevitable bumps along the way. If you run into questions you don’t know the answer to (How do I drop a class? What if I get locked out of my room?), no worries—there are folks around whose job it is to help you.

2. Talk about the nitty-gritty details. Sometimes it’s simply the unknown that has your kid flummoxed. So help him with as many details as you can gather: Here’s how to get money out of an ATM. Here’s how to get from your dorm to your dining hall. Here’s the bus to take to get to the train station. That kind of thing.

3. Let your kid know you—and her home—are always there for her. Maybe what your kid needs is a frank (and frequent) reminder: “We’re your family, and this is your home, and we will be here for you when you want to come back.” And mean it: This is probably not the kid whose room you want to convert into a study the week after she heads off to college!

4. But not too much. As a parent, your instinct is to help and protect your offspring, sure. But now is when you start dragging your feet when it comes to stepping in to fix things (if you haven’t already!). It’s time for your kid to leave the nest, after all, and she can’t do that if you don’t let her learn to fly! So resist the impulse to bring her home for the weekend the first time she says she’s homesick. Don’t get involved in negotiations with her roommates about having a boy over for the night. And please, please, please don’t call her professor to complain about her grade on her first English essay! (Yes, that’s happened!) Listen to your fledgling’s worries and struggles, but don’t rush in to rescue her—that’s the refrain I’m hearing from moms and college administrators.

5. Offer some helpful advice. You may, however, share a little wisdom. Reassure your college kid that some homesickness is normal, typically transient—and not a sign that she’s made a huge mistake. Encourage her to get involved in a new club or activity, go for a walk or a swim, and simply give herself some time to adjust.

6. Make a plan for staying connected. This is where scheduling a weekly chat will help. And sending those fun-filled care packages.

So these are a few ideas I’ve been able to collect for cheering on your kid’s first attempts at flight. What about you? What has helped you cope with homesickness in the past? How have you helped your child deal with homesickness when he’s had the far-from-home blues? What are some ways you’ve found to encourage reluctant fledglings?

3 thoughts on “The Reluctant Fledgling: Encouraging your child when she’s anxious about leaving the nest.

  1. I wish I had been better prepared for college. I was just 17 when I started – a full year younger than many of my peers. I was kept closely “under my mother’s wing” during childhood, and always rescued when things went wrong; not given the freedom to make many of my own choices. So when the door shut behind me at a college 3 hours from home, I made some bad decisions my freshman year and it ended up being a true disaster! Somehow, I found my own resolve and strength to turn my situation around, and I finished my college years strong. This was indeed a learning experience for me, and I was not ready when I started out. My husband and I are going to try our best to make college a better experience for our son. I really like the idea of kids attending a community or other local college for the first two years and then transferring. As a whole, I think our society pushes children into many things far too young – and the rigors of higher education and living away from home for the first time can be difficult to manage at 17 and 18. Now that I am so much older, I realize just how very young I was striking out on my own at that time! You have some excellent tips, Chris – thank you for sharing!

    • I was a young freshman too — I’m hoping we’ve done a better job preparing our son for living “on his own,” too — I guess we’ll find out! Thanks for your comment!

  2. I too was a 17 year old Freshmen, but I was far from the “reluctant fledgling!” I couldn’t wait to go to college and strike out on my own…and my transition was seamless. However, as a parent of a rising senior, I see the value of being a bit older. Our son will turn 18 just after starting his senior year this year. Had we lived in Maryland, he would be heading to college this fall as a 17 year old (yikes!). This “extra” year is allowing him to think more about what he wants to study. In addition, it allows us as parents an extra year of overseeing his day to day while giving him more freedom and responsibilities! If my husband and I felt that he was not ready to leave the nest, we would not hesitate to recommend a community or local college! Thanks for giving us so much to think about, Chris!!!

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