Left Behind: How to help younger sibs adjust when a big brother or sister heads to campus

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By Chris Little

Until now I’ve been focusing on how the emptying nest feels to the parents (okay, mostly the mothers) left behind. But I’d like to spend some time thinking about how it might feel to younger kids left at home when an older sibling heads off to college. I’ve been doing some reading and found a great article by Dr. Kathy Zamostny, a psychologist at the University of Maryland.

“When an older child leaves for college, it creates a hole in the family unit that presents both challenges and opportunities for those at home,” she writes. “On the one hand, younger siblings may experience a sense of loss when a close (or not so close) older sister or brother takes off for college that may be related to less support or companionship, or even a lower activity level with one less person in the home.”

That’s one thing: The house undeniably will be quieter. And with one less driver in the house, your younger kids might find themselves back on the school bus. What will that be like?

“A younger child’s role in the family may change with the absence of his big brother or big sister,” Zamostny continues. “For example, a second born child moves up to become the oldest, or perhaps an ‘only’ kid at home—which can have drawbacks and benefits. Some younger children may experience increased pressure when an older sib is no longer around to split the attention and scrutiny of parents or to buffer parental demands and reprimands.”

I’ve definitely heard from friends that the last one left at home can feel a little overwhelmed by all the parental attention! But there’s a flip side to that, too:

“Some younger siblings blossom socially when an older sibling leaves home, in part because there is more psychological space to grow and interact,” Zamostny writes. “Also, more physical space opens up—perhaps an extra bedroom that allows greater opportunities to entertain friends. In addition, the family car may become more available, time on the television or computer may be more abundant, and the house may feel more peaceful and quiet. An older child’s absence might also strengthen the bonds among younger sibs as they adjust to their shared loss by forging new relationships.”

The bottom line is, it might feel good and bad when an older sibling heads off to college—and it’s going to take some time to adjust. Here are a few suggestions to help ease the transition:

A-beautiful-hispanic-college-student-texting-on-her-cellphoneKeep them connected. Phone calls and emails are great for keeping your younger kids connected with your college kid. Skype is even better. I read about a pair of sisters who used to love to bake together. When one moved out of the house they continued the tradition, baking together over Skype with each in her own kitchen!

Plan a visit. Is your younger child old enough to spend a weekend at college her big sib?  Having some time together might help both kids adjust. Added benefit: Your younger child gets a chance to experience college life.

Keep up your traditions. Of course you’re going to save as many traditions as you can for when your college kid comes home—like maybe decorating the Christmas tree or baking holiday cookies, etc. But some traditions, like Sunday-night pizza or Monday-night football, should continue even in their absence. Life goes on, and when it does, that’s comforting to everyone.

Start new ones! This is also a good time to take up some new traditions. Did your eldest hate bike rides (or ice cream, or watching old movies) but your youngest always loved them? These differences in taste and personality point the way to new traditions—I think once my eldest is out of the house we’ll be eating a lot less ice cream but watching a lot more Glee!

Keep communication lines open at home. Many kids are missing their older siblings but don’t like to admit it. Checking in with your younger child from time to time, just to let her know you’re thinking about how she’s doing with the changes at home, can be reassuring. You might start this even before your college kid moves out—ask our younger child about her hopes and worries about this next stage.

Celebrate your team. Before and after your college kid heads to campus, make a point of celebrating your family unit. Does that sound hokey? It doesn’t have to be! Just try to notice—and share in a casual way—the times you’re especially enjoying the family-ness of your family. For me, it’s sitting around the dinner table long after dinner is over. I never want to be the first one to get up to clear the plates, and the kids roll their eyes when I bring a dish of cookies over—they know I’m trying to keep them there talking as long as I can! Celebrating your team will help your younger kids know that the family will continue even into September—and it’ll help your college kid know that as he sets off on his big new adventure, you’ve all got his back.

Keep your balance. As you adjust to there being one less place at the dinner table each night, you might find yourself leaning for emotional support on the kids still at home. Some of that is okay, but be careful about expecting them to carry too much of your emotional weight. Read here for some tips on keeping your inner balance so that you don’t push the kids off theirs.

I can see there’s no way around it: Having a child move off to college is going to change things at home—with an inevitable reshuffling of roles and family dynamics. It seems like the key is to pay attention to how that feels and be flexible, patient—and communicative—as you all adapt.

So of course I want to hear from parents who’ve already got a college kid out of the nest—how was it for the younger kids? How did you get through the change in a positive way? I’m eager for any tips I can find!

 

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4 thoughts on “Left Behind: How to help younger sibs adjust when a big brother or sister heads to campus

  1. WOW I would say you nailed it! for us it was especially good to do a few new “traditions” like picking a show and watching the whole thing from the first episode of the first season (on demand or using Netfliz). WE did How I Met Your Mother and 24. Then watching a couple episodes at night with dinner. It became our fun thing to do! visiting siblings at college is also a great idea and so fun for the HS sibling! The thing we noticed too was that the first day or 2 were very hard after the college sibs left. Then things evened out. But after about a month there was another hard period. so being aware of that helped us after finding that out the first year.
    this is a great post Chris!!!

    • Caryl thanks for the voice of experience — I hadn’t thought that difficult feelings would re-emerge after a month or so, but I’ll keep myself prepared for that … I love thinking of this as a learning process for all involved. Also I’m excited about starting a new phase of life, that of “college parent.” I hope it’s as fun as all the previous ones have been! 🙂

  2. Chris and Caryl – many thanks for your words of wisdom… our family is facing this very situation and I TRULY appreciate your advice! It’s going to be a challenge for sure as we enter this new phase, but I do see younger sister and brother stepping up a bit and becoming more independent / responsible already. The roles and family dynamics are shifting!

  3. Thank you so much for the PRACTICAL insight shared. Our two older boys both happen to be leaving at the same time. And to be frank, they really help with parenting our daughter. They are all really close. Neither me nor her are really looking forwards to the change in dynamics. Nor my husband ….

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