Off to College: Parental Separation Anxiety

GoodTherapy | Off to College: Parental Separation AnxietyCome September, many young people will be leaving home to go away to college. Students and parents are excited about this new journey. But in addition to the excitement, there is often anxiety about moving out of the comfort zone of home and family. While the focus is often on the separation anxiety the student experiences at this milestone, too often we neglect the parents’ separation anxiety.

From watchfulness to surveillance, parents retain a varying degree of control over their high-school-aged children. But when a child goes off to college, the ability to know what is going on in that child’s life depends on the child’s willingness to communicate and share information. Since it is developmentally appropriate for college-aged children to be separating and individuating from their parents, we can expect that many children will share less than parents might be hoping to learn. Not knowing, in areas where there was previous information, makes parents more anxious.

Parents express many different worries about how their children will manage when the parent is no longer so present in their lives. Anxieties may be about drugs and alcohol, or there are concerns about social and academic problems. Parents with children who may already be dealing with emotional issues, eating disorders, or learning disabilities can feel especially anxious.

It is to be expected that a parent would worry about how their child will manage on their own in college. This is appropriate and shouldn’t be confused with a parent’s separation anxiety. When a parent feels the need to contact the child repeatedly, can’t sleep, can’t stop thinking and wondering how the child might be feeling or what the child is doing, the parent may be experiencing separation anxiety. When we think of the child’s separation anxiety we understand it to be about the feeling that “I won’t be alright without my attachment to my parent.” For the parent, it is much the same: “I won’t be alright without my attachment to my child.” Parents experience their anxiety as being about the worry “Is my child going to be okay?” But what they often fail to be aware of is that they may be even more anxious (consciously or unconsciously) about their own well-being. They wonder, “Am I going to be okay?”

Learning to Detach and Individualize

In my therapy practice, I have had the opportunity to work with many parents who have struggled with the separation and individuation of their children. One father, “Seth,” began therapy when his daughter, “Kristin,” was applying to college. He spent many of his sessions talking about Kristin and her college application process. He was very troubled about Kristin keeping him out of the decision making.

Sadly, with tears in his eyes, Seth told me, “She comes home and closes her door and goes on that computer and researches where she wants to go. Her mom and I ask her about her choices, we tell her we need to be part of the process; we remind her that we will be paying a good part of the tuition. She just gets irritated and says she wants to do this on her own and she’ll let us know what she decides.”

Recently, Seth came into my office for his therapy session looking very distressed. He immediately said, “I can’t believe that girl. All of her college acceptances have come in and she has decided to leave New York and go to school in Arizona. That’s much too far away. We’ll never see her! I told her she couldn’t go and she got so mad. She started screaming at us. She said she hated us, that we were terrible parents and never let her have what she wants! She was so mean!”

Seth started to cry softly and, almost in a whisper, said, “I’m so scared. I love her so much, I can’t stand this. It feels like we’ve lost her forever. She’ll never come home. If I don’t agree to pay, she said she would pay herself. She did get good financial aid from them and I don’t think I can play the money card. What am I going to do?”

I asked Seth, “What makes you think Kristin is lost to you forever?”

Seth answered, “We used to be so close when she was younger. She was daddy’s little girl. Her mom worked more than I did and I took her to soccer, to swimming; I helped her with her homework every day. She would tell me about everything — even the boys she had crushes on! Then in her sophomore year of High School, she got more secretive. She started going out with Jeremy and was becoming more social. I could understand that she needed some space from me. My wife and I used to talk about how grown up she was getting. We started to check what she was doing and who she was talking to on her cell phone and computer. There are a lot of scary possibilities out there. She never found out we were keeping tabs on her, but she started to become easily irritated and annoyed around us. She would get on my wife’s case about the food she was cooking and she gets annoyed with me when I ask her about almost anything.”

Seth began to sob, “I can’t eat, can’t sleep. What will I do without her? She is my only child. So much of how I think about myself has to do with my being a father. If I lose her, can I still be a father? What kind of a father could I be without my daughter?”

I reminded Seth that we had been talking about how it made him anxious to think of his daughter having a life so separate and different from his. A lawyer, Seth had followed his father into the law and joined his father’s practice after completing law school. After he married and Kristin was born, he moved into an apartment in the same building as his parents. He understood that his model of parent-child relationships was a reflection of his own experience.

Seth acknowledged what we had been discussing: “I know I grew up very close to my parents, especially my father. I would never talk to him the way Kristin talks to me. I always respected him and needed him for guidance and that gave me such confidence and comfort. It’s not like I thought Kristin had to become a lawyer, but I did hope she might. But she has no interest in it. She wants to major in art, which is fine, but I really don’t get what her art is about. She makes these things out of paper and wood. I try to act interested, but, really, where is that going to get her? How will she make anything of herself? How can I get her to pay attention to what I think? I’m her father.”

Separation Is Not Rejection

Seth’s struggle illustrates many of the issues parents have to contend with as they try to become less anxious about their children differentiating from them. Seeing one’s child as different, as having a separate self with separate desires and ideals, can give a parent the feeling of being rejected. When parents have this experience it is essential to be clear that difference does not signify a child’s rejection. What keeps parent and child attached is not sameness. Sameness can often give parent and child the feeling of closeness, but a very different kind of attachment occurs when there are two separate, different people who are connected by the feelings they have for each other.

For the parent who has felt this sameness with their child but now recognizes that their child is differentiating, there can be painful and frightening anxiety as they try to figure out how to understand and relate to this separate differentiated person. For parents who have not differentiated from their own parents, this can be especially difficult.

Seth is beginning to consider that he can come to know and appreciate his daughter with all her differences. As he begins to relax with the belief that he can know and love this separate person, he is becoming aware how scared he has been that maybe she wouldn’t continue to love him. Seth is only one example of a parent struggling with separation anxiety. One reason I believe Seth is less anxious now than when we began our work is that he has been able to identify that he is feeling separation anxiety.

Many parents who are worried when their children go off to college, are not aware that they are experiencing an emotion that is not simply based on the practical worries of safety or performance or the well being of their children. They have not recognized that they have been afraid that their children would move away from them emotionally, become different in a way to make their attachment feel less close and loving. Realizing this, thinking about separation and individuation as a developmental necessity, not a personal affront or wrenching loss, can help many parents resolve much of their anxious feelings.

© Copyright 2013 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Beverly Amsel, PhD, Individuation Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • kaye

    June 13th, 2013 at 4:08 AM

    This fall I will be sending my youngest off to college, and although with her older brothers I was fine and almost ready for them to fly the nest, with her it feels different. We have always been so close and I know that although this is the way that it is supposed to be, that we will probably never be as close as we have always been. I want her to find new things and enjoy her own life but there is still that little twinge of sadness that keeps growing that I am not sure will go away. I am trying to stay positive and upbeat for her because I don’t want what I am feeling to diminish her excitement, so that’s my summer in a nutshell!

  • Marquis

    June 14th, 2013 at 4:13 AM

    I want my children to go to college and be free, and I want to do what I can while they are still with me to prepare them to leave the nest with grace.

    Not sure that my wife would agree with me. She wants them all to go to school close to home and be able to commute while I think that it is important for them to experience a little taste of freedom.

    Needless to say there are some serious disagreements in the house. I think that she is afriad that if wwe let them go far them they will never return, but I don’t think that if we lay a strong foundation for them now that they would ever want to be away from that all the time.

  • Jen

    August 13th, 2018 at 1:01 AM

    My husband and I used to have the same discussions. Now that we just moved our son into college, I can tell you. You don’t get to choose. You can answer questions, give advice, and help way the pros and cons but they choose. It was the most difficult experience of my life. Even though we’ve enforced the rules and boundaries all their life so far, it ends here. If you force them into a choice that is yours you may lose them forever. Lock it down, put on a smile, and be there when they need you but let them choose. And most importantly try really hard to find enjoyment because it’s what you prepared her for. STAY STRONG.

  • Lucy

    September 9th, 2019 at 10:08 PM

    I honestly feel the same way. My two oldest kids just moved out this past August 2019 off to college 3 hours away from home. We are helping a bit financially, they are working part time and going to school full time. We have gone to visit twice, they have been back home once (this weekend) I feel that they are doing great. As mentioned before by Marquis, laying a strong foundation should give us parents a bit of peace of mind.
    Thing here is that us parents are the ones feeling it more. They are not here around the house, running errands, accompanying us wherever we go (if you have a close relationship) and as simple as seeing them asleep in their own room. I know they are ok, it is ME the one that is not ok. I am now in a road of reconstructing myself because besides those two looking for their future, I still have a younger one here at home. He has been the sweetest thing ever since his brother and sister left. I also have a very supportive husband. So, there is no other option but to keep it going. This is LIFE….

  • Leigh

    June 17th, 2013 at 4:21 AM

    I am pretty sure that there weren’t any tears on the part of my parents when I graduated hs and went to college. They were happy for me, I was excited to be out on my own somewhat, and I guess it was like that because I felt prepared to do it.
    They had always given me tons of useful advice and taught me to be responsible, so what was there to be afraid of from any of us?
    It was a little sad, yes, but overall I think that all of us were glad for that day to finally get there and there has been no looking back since.
    I hope that they didn’t sit around sad for long. As a matter of fact I am pretty sure that they didn’t because the first time I cam home for a long weekend, I already had to sleep on the sofa because my bedroom had been turned into a workout room.

  • Francis

    February 23rd, 2014 at 4:37 AM

    Separation anxiety at this stage may also bring about deep anxieties in parents that have not themselves resolved separation anxiety. Early childhood bereavement and bad divorces may have been covered by the joy of parenthood in one or other of the parents. Maybe the father (mother) has become dependent upon the child and the child’s ‘growing up’ invokes early memories. I think adult separation anxieties are too readily dismissed.

  • Kim

    June 9th, 2016 at 6:24 AM


  • Track Coach

    August 19th, 2016 at 2:12 PM

    Just found out today that one of my athletes will not but going to college,I was never very confident that she would go,didn’t give it a name ,but I believe it is separation aniexty on both parts,she was suppose to leave today,but this was the text I received (Hey coach, due to some family reasons I wont be going to King anymore. Im going to go to VSU in the Spring. Im still going to be running track though. ) I am not confident that I belive the statement she made

  • Candia

    January 30th, 2017 at 1:14 PM

    My issue is not about if my child detaches from me, I actually want her to detach and feel independent. My worry is that she will be ok. That she will not be harmed, get sick with no one to care or she will have some emotional issues and I am not there to help. I know she has to break away and handle life on her one in case I am no longer alive but that’s just what I fear the most, that she will need me and I will be very far away. She has never be away from home and she is going across the world from me.

  • Jamie

    June 16th, 2017 at 7:56 PM

    Oh boy can I relate to this !! I hear ya loud and clear. All we can do is trust and that if we are needed, a way will be open that we can be there.

  • Jeanne

    September 18th, 2017 at 6:05 PM

    My daughter left to college a month ago, I have been depressed and feeling worthless and not needed anymore. Its a terrible feeling, I am really having a hard time accepting the situation. Advises? Please? Thank You!

  • Genevac3

    May 28th, 2018 at 4:57 PM

    Did you ever resolve your feelings? My oldest left last year in 2017 and my middle leaves this year. I’m still suffering. It hit dec. 19th. I don’t know my role and my chest hurts and I cry all weekend. Even when he is home visiting. I’m seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist and still I suffer. Did it get better for you?

  • Katie

    August 19th, 2018 at 7:54 AM

    Hi I just left my son at college yesterday and I feel such a profound loss. Did it get any better for you?

  • John S

    August 10th, 2019 at 11:06 AM

    Hang in there!! It’s a human emotion we ALL go through! Life sucks sometimes, but, we get through it. Good luck!!

  • Maryam

    August 25th, 2019 at 4:34 PM

    My daughter is leaving in a week to Rhode Island for college. I truly am proud of her. But I have this sick feeling in my stomach. I know she will be fine and good through this process. My husband is blaming me for encouraging to go with her gut. He is mad at me and lets me know everyday. I know I have separation anxiety but I am not showing it with her because I want her to succeed. My husband tells her it is my fault. To me she is my baby and leaving us is difficult. However, I do realize she has been under our roof and we have been guiding her all this time. I think for me is missing her and knowing I can’t help her when she wants me to because she is so far away. I never thought after all these years the one thing my husband I would argue and fight would be for my daughter leaving to go find herself in this way. I want to help him to get into acceptance. But this is something he has to do and not me.

  • Ren

    January 2nd, 2020 at 2:29 AM

    I have been trying to find good articles on the subject as my daughter flew to Chicago yesterday for a Division 1 Athletic Scholarship. We are from New Zealand and thousand of miles away. I am suffering heart aches, or is this panic attack? or anxiety?
    I am not worried about her, she turned and she is a seasoned traveler. She has a good work ethic and has been playing tennis all over Asia and Europe and started traveling on her own with coaches and teams since she was 14. I do travel with her and supported her in trainings and tournaments as needed. I know she will be okay and the world is her oyster. But I miss her terribly. She is my youngest child and only girl. The three boys are not at home but living in their own apartments in the city and it seems like they never left as they always drop by the house for food etc… and always around in the weekends.
    It is really hard. it has only been a day. I hope it gets better. One dad who’s son also went to College in the US told me he cried for 3 months! We will visit her in March and watch some of her matches, something to look forward too. all the best to every parent.

  • Tuwanda

    August 24th, 2022 at 10:09 AM

    My daughter just left for college in a different state today and all week I have been alone and crying for days but never around her. As much as I am proud, I am also feeling so empty and uninspired now. I am not overly worried about her capability of taking care of herself but in my heart that has always been my role. I pray and meditate often and sometimes I am relieved, but then here comes that empty feeling again. It’s not even a full day since she left and I feel like I am on a rollercoaster ride and honestly don’t know how to get off. I always pray for my daughter well being, and now I am praying for mine. This is tough

  • Susan

    August 14th, 2023 at 4:11 PM

    I am so sad, depressed even that our youngest of our five combined is going into his senior year of college. I am understanding that I do not do well with loss. I only slightly worry about him finding his way in the word, but he has been so focused on his chosen field so I am very certain that he will be fine. I am just so sad and crying daily. He stays at college during the summers, so we don’t really see. I love that he is enjoying college so much and is so involved. My life has been centered around him for years now. I feel like I have nothing left. I know it isn’t true. I have a great husband who tries, but cannot understand depression. I’ve dealt with depression for 20+ years now, but this is the hardest it’s been. I love him so much and want him to be happy, but I feel lost.

  • Rob

    August 17th, 2023 at 12:49 PM

    Daughter just moved into her dorm yesterday. She is feeling anxiety and homesick. I hope she can get over it and enjoy the experience. We lost her sister who was 3 years older than her when she was 8. Since then our surviving daughter has kind of been the reason we were able to continue with our lives. Raising her has been our purpose. I miss her but I really want her to succeed and stand on her own. Her making it though school and getting out into the world is more important than any selfish feeling I might have for wanting her around us. I put her first so I can handle the separation. I worry more about her sticking it out.

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