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Ask an Expert: Coping when a child leaves home

Denver mental health expert Steve Sarche encourages parents who recently said goodbye to a college-bound child to feel their feelings, and move on.

It is a bittersweet time of year for many parents. Summer break departs like a ship to sea. Parents get a break in the sense that they do not have to act as the proverbial cruise directors every day. However, the reality that the kids are another year older and, in some cases, getting ready to move out can feel like the ship is sinking.

Campus of University of Colorado at Boulder
Campus of University of Colorado at Boulder

This is not a good feeling. A sense of nostalgia, fear, sadness and loss of control would all be expected. If you experience these feelings as you wave good-bye to your child (perhaps hiding both a smile and a tear), relax, it is supposed to be a difficult time.

Life is filled with tough situations; losing your Chapstick, being late to work, having to say goodbye to somebody. As you can see from this list, some situations will evoke more intense feelings than others.

Watching your child grow up, knowing that you will never work with her again on a school art project or watch him awkwardly handle his first homecoming dance, is generally ranked high on the “tough situation” scale.

An important strategy in dealing with the accompanying feelings is to accept those feelings and understand it is OK to feel bad. Next, you want to keep moving. When sad or upset, the busier you can be, the more distracted you are, the quicker you can adjust. Surround yourself with friends, your favorite music or your most comforting scenery – be it the mall or the mountains.

Keep to your routine as best as possible. Your appetite and sleep will not be good at first but try to eat three healthy meals per day. Avoid alcohol and comfort eating. Keep sleep/wake times as consistent as possible. Take care of yourself. Exercise is terrific for handling situational feelings. Long walks, yoga, meditation are all relaxing. Talk to other people who have gone through this or are going through this. It always helps to realize you are not alone in your feelings. It also helps to learn what others do to cope.

Life is a voyage, a journey. The sea will be very rough at times and smooth as glass others. I believe that one purpose of the rough times is to serve to remind us that good times in life are not constant and therefore are things to be cherished and savored. It is empowering to be present; to focus on what you have and how you feel in the moment.

Now go enjoy the quiet solitude of your home.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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