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by Dr. Susan Bartell March 20, 2014

Related: college application process, oldest child applying to college, younger children during college application process, applying to college, balancing attention between children,

The college application process is a hectic journey for your child. While your oldest is taking standardized testing, filling out applications, and interviewing with their top colleges, it's important to consider how younger siblings feel during this time. From having their older sibling leave home for the first time, to picking up on the general stress of the application process, here are some tips on making sure younger siblings don't get lost in the college rush.

teen on computer

March is the month that most high school seniors find out about college acceptances. Then, they have until May 1 to pick their college. It is a time of excitement and disappointment…and it is a time that consumes families as they cope with the emotional upheaval and the daunting financial commitment to come. BUT, that’s not what we’re discussing now!

Today, let’s talk about the younger siblings of those high school seniors. The prospect of an older sibling going off to college can evoke a wide range of emotions for a child. Many will profess that they can’t wait for the bossy, pain-in-the-neck older sibling to leave. Don’t be fooled! This expression of happiness usually hides deeper, more ambivalent feelings.

  • One child may secretly worry that he will miss an older brother or sister—especially if he will now be an ‘only’ child.
  • A second child in bigger families can feel pressure to step into the older child’s role and become more responsible than she really wants to be yet.
  • Another child could be concerned that once the older child leaves, mom or dad will have no-one else on whom to focus their nagging and discipline.
  • Some fear that they will never be able to live up to the success of an older child—and even get into a decent college.
  • A child may develop separation issues and performance anxiety as he think about the prospect of college—worrying that he won’t be ready to take such a leap. He doesn’t realize that when the time comes, he will be ready.
  • Alternatively, a younger sibling can feel pushed aside. She worries that the intense focus on the college-bound one means that her parents will spend all their time missing the older sibling.

In fact, your child may experience some of these issues, even if it is a cousin, babysitter or neighbor that is going off to college. For many kids, when a great babysitter or other significant teen leaves for college, it can feel like a real loss.

So, what can you do to help your child adjust to the ‘new normal’.

  • Encourage her to talk about her feelings. Validate whatever she shares and tell her you understand.
  • Discuss positive changes that will occur once the older child is away (no fighting over the remote; lots of extra time with mom or dad).
  • Talk about ways to stay in touch with the college-bound senior (phone, texting, video chatting, vacations at home, family weekends at the college). Help your child to see that college doesn’t mean losing touch.
  • Prepare your younger child for the reality that college is a very busy time, he may not be able to speak to an older sibling as often as he would like, but this doesn’t mean the older child has forgotten him.
  • Help your child prepare a special ‘college goodbye’ for an older child. Great ideas loved by both younger kids and the college-bound senior include a scrapbook, photo collage, or a framed poem.

The key to helping a child manage the big college goodbye is to give them room to feel all their feelings and then adjust to the new normal. This may take time and patience!


Dr. Susan Bartell is a Long Island-based, nationally recognized child psychologist, speaker, and award-winning author. Her latest book is The Top 50 Questions Kids Ask. Read more of Dr. Bartell’s advice at nymetroparents.com/bartell.

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