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Helping a Child Cope When an Older Sibling Goes to College

Helping a Child Cope When an Older Sibling Goes to College

In families with two children, an older sibling’s departure for college can spark mixed emotions in the younger child who remains at home. Here’s how to cope.

When Queens resident Sarah Richard is asked if she will miss her little sister when she leaves for college next year, the 17-year-old rolls her eyes and says, “Yeah, I’m going to miss that dork.” Although it is just about a year away, the Richard girls are already contemplating Sarah’s departure. The girls have lived across the hall from one another for the past 14 years, a fact that is on 14-year-old Rebecca’s mind when she says, “I’ll be sad, for sure, but I definitely want to visit.”

Even if it seems like your kids spent the past 15 years fighting over everything, this is an all-too-common feeling when one sibling leaves for college—especially for families with two children, where the younger one suddenly finds herself an “only child.” The sibling who remains at home can be left with a number of new emotions to deal with, not to mention a shift in the family dynamics and a much quieter house. These feelings can range from relief to abandonment, and will often fluctuate even after a new routine is put in place.

To help with the adjustment, we’re offering tips on how to help your younger child cope when his sibling goes off to college. (Families with more than two children will face their own unique issues when the eldest leaves home, but these tips are applicable to them as well.)

Include Younger Children in the College-Planning Process

The college application process can go on for years. With the hustle and bustle of visiting colleges, filling out applications, writing essays, and ultimately choosing a college, your younger son or daughter may end up feeling like a background player in the family. Stephanie Richard, Sarah and Rebecca’s mom, suggests including younger siblings in the process from the very beginning. “Ultimately both kids are going to eventually go to college,” she says. “We had our younger daughter create a list of questions for potential colleges while on tours for her older sister that were based on her specific interests.” This was a great way for her younger daughter to feel included in the process, Richard says, which was especially important since they dedicated quite a few family vacations to touring colleges.

Parents can also opt to involve the younger sibling in minor details of the process, suggests Gayle Sturmer, LCSW-R, who practices in Nyack and Tarrytown. “Letting children contribute to brainstorming transition suggestions is empowering for the child and allows them to be part of the launching process,” she says. “The non-college bound child sometimes gets lost in the excitement and/or anxiety about the transition for the college-bound child. Having both children involved in perhaps choosing things for the dorm room, certainly with the big freshman move into the dorm, is great way to be inclusive.”

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Create a New Routine for Younger Children Still at Home

With one child out of the house, it is time not only to establish new family dynamics but also a new routine. Your younger child may take the transition in stride, reveling in being an “only child,” but others may struggle with it. “The key to making any transition easier for children and teens is to keep some things consistent and create some things together that are new, different, and tailored to the appeal of the younger sibling,” Sturmer suggests. Have the younger sibling decide what he wants for dinner, or what family movie she chooses to watch one night. He might get excited at the idea that there is no one there with whom he needs to negotiate these choices and that he can have his first choice pick more often now. Sturmer also suggests “creating new rituals” between parents and the child who is home. Pick a day to do something special after school, such as get frozen yogurt or go out to a favorite restaurant. “This is an opportunity to create a new dynamic between the parent and the child at home,” Sturmer says.

If your child is really struggling with loneliness, it’s important to recognize the things that have not changed, the appealing things that still exist, and to create new things, Sturmer says. “Often children and teens have a view that can be distorted—an adolescent brain is working from a very different place than an adult brain—so it’s very important to try to gently acknowledge the loneliness and emphasize the things that challenge the negative thinking.” Remind younger children of all the benefits they have now that the older child is out of the house. These may include having the family car or other shared items to themselves, having more room in the house for sleepovers, and receiving more attention from parents.

Encourage Communication Between Siblings

If your younger child really misses having face-to-face time with her older sibling, have them schedule a digital date once a week. FaceTime or Skype is a great way to connect with your child who is away. Once a weekly date is established, this will give both siblings something to look forward to each week—after all, the child who is away at college may also be experiencing some level of homesickness, and this is a great way for her to reconnect with home. If video chat doesn’t work, “a quick text, an Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook message goes a long way for children and adolescents. Regardless of our opinion of social media and technology, we are flooded with it and our children are tied to it. In this case, it can be used as an easy simulated ‘visit,’” Sturmer says. 

Parents can also help their younger children connect to their older siblings by working on creating a care package together or making plans to visit as a family. When the older one is back from college, parents can arrange for “sibling-only” outings or even nights at home.

Having a child go off to college is an exciting time, but can also be fraught with a lot of different emotions for everyone in the family. “If a child (or parent) is feeling very challenged by the change in family dynamic and circumstance, consulting with a psychotherapist who is knowledgeable with this stage of life and the specific challenges the family members are experiencing is important. To wait until things escalate can be problematic and unnecessary. Sometimes just a simple consult can go a long way,” Sturmer says.

RELATED: Find Therapists in Your Area


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