For parents, freshman move-in day evokes a whole range of feelings.
Emotionally, it’s one of the proudest days of your life — you’re seeing off a child you’ve raised to adulthood, a child who has succeeded through 12 years of school and earned a place in higher education.
At the same time, every parent struggles to let go, no matter how much they’ve mentally prepared for this moment.
This guide is designed to help all parents navigate the practical and emotional challenges of sending their child off to school.
From packing tips for move-in day to advice for handling that empty-nest feeling, this guide will walk you step-by-step through the gradual process of acknowledging and supporting your child’s first steps into independence.
Table of Contents:
- Practical matters: What to pack for dorm living
- Be prepared for everyone to have an emotional day
- Your family’s home: Some things change, and some things will always remain the same
- Embrace this change in the parent-child relationship
Practical matters: What to pack for dorm living
As a parent, you’re already familiar with that impulse to over-pack and over-prepare whenever your child leaves home for more than 24 hours. After all, you just spent the last 18 years asking, “Did you pack enough socks and underwear?”
Temper that instinct for moving-in day. No dorm needs to be 100% stocked and outfitted on Day 1. Instead, as Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan suggest at Grown & Flown, you just need to make sure your child has the basics in place; anything else can be purchased nearby or online as needed.
“Most kids take too much stuff and end up bringing things home unused,” Harrington and Heffernan write. “They need a handful of essentials, their backpack, laptop, phone and any prescription meds. Truly, everything else they can get later. It is important to remember, deep down, that a lot of that fussing we are doing is just because the thought of letting go hurts.”
Digital textbook and courseware company Boundless already has the ultimate packing list for first-year college students. Note that anything italicized in the infographic below can (and probably should) be purchased on arrival rather than packed for transport:
Here are a few other essentials worth considering, as well:
- GreatSchools recommends bringing a simple set of tools, which is both handy and a great ice-breaker because nearly everyone in the hall will need to borrow a screwdriver or a hammer during that first week.
- The Grown & Flown team suggest a zippered mattress cover, which will keep bedbugs out, unpleasant as bedbugs are to think about.
- College Admission recommends bed risers to create extra storage.
- UniversityParent says storage cubes are a must-have; probably buy these last, after you have an idea of how much space your child’s things will take up in the dorm.
- Finally, Fastweb says don’t pack T-shirts. Your child will probably end up with 10 free T-shirts during orientation alone.
Parents of budding entrepreneurs and techies: Go light on the tech
In our recent Den of Genius videos, we introduce everyone to Kevin, an inventor and aspiring entrepreneur. Many of the first-year students arriving at college this year share Kevin’s passion and his dreams. Like him, they hope to build the next big thing, whether that is an innovative gadget or a billion-dollar app.
Either way, inventors, makers and builders have a unique talent for cluttering their dorm rooms. But for arrival day, it’s best to take a minimalist approach to tech tools.
These are the must-haves:
- A computer — Laptops work best in most cases. If you need to buy a new one, check out The Wirecutter‘s excellent guide to laptops for every need. If your child is planning to pursue a tech-heavy major, a more powerful PC might be called for.
- Local storage such as USB drives or an external hard drive to back up coursework
- A phone
- A surge protector
Here are a few nice-to-haves:
- Access to HBO, Netflix or any other streaming services
- A game console, with at least two controllers, and a TV — If your son or daughter is an avid gamer, having multiplayer capabilities provides another nice way to meet others in the dorm. Just make sure to coordinate with roommates as to who is bringing the TV.
Consider leaving these at home:
- A printer — Check with the university first to see whether students have 24/7 access to a printing center. If so, don’t worry about packing one.
- A wireless router — Goucher College in Baltimore, for example, provides WiFi access in all residence halls. Check with the university to see whether a router is necessary.
- A DVD or Blu-Ray player — Save that Criterion Collection library for when your child comes home to visit.
Have these in case of emergency
While a parent never wants to think about their child having to deal with an emergency while he or she is away at school, it’s important to be prepared. Here are a few extra things your child should have when you arrive for move-in day:
- A credit card — Credit cards are great safety nets if your child’s cash and debit card go missing, but they can also be a real source of trouble for students who don’t have much experience with managing personal finances. The College Board’s Bigfuture blog stresses the importance of using credit cards only when necessary, and only when you’re confident you can pay off the balance when that bill comes due. For sound advice on credit card use for first-year college students, we recommend Magnify Money’s A Beginner’s Guide to Using a Credit Card.
- A list of emergency contacts — If you have any friends or family members who live close to your child’s school, make sure they have each other’s contact information.
- Also, get the contact information from the parents of your child’s roommate — In an emergency, college students often turn to their roommates first for help. Having the parents of your child’s roommate available in an emergency lets your family and theirs work together to solve any problems.
- Renter’s insurance — It’s a good idea for your child to have renter’s insurance to cover any loss, theft or damage to personal property in the dorms. Oregon State and Cal Poly, for example, explicitly recommend renter’s insurance in their fall move-in guides.
Once you’ve unpacked, take inventory of anything else you might need
If you’ve limited yourselves to just bringing the essentials, then the dorm room shouldn’t be too cluttered after you’ve unpacked everything and found a home for it. Take this opportunity to see what else your child might need.
Maybe the area under the bed leaves a lot more room for storage than you’d anticipated. Maybe the shared kitchen lacks a good coffee maker. Maybe it makes sense to stock up on cleaning supplies now, in case no one thinks to buy any more the rest of the semester. Whatever the case, now is the time to make a run to the store to fill in the gaps.
As a bonus, this trip will orient your family with the campus’ surroundings so you’ll know where stores are, where student-friendly coffee shops are, and where good restaurants are (it’s nice to have a go-to restaurant when you drop in for a visit).
Be prepared for everyone to have an emotional day
Remember that you child probably will be just as anxious as you on moving-in day. Kids are also worried about having to tell their parents “goodbye,” but they’re also thinking about how they’ll thrive in their new environment.
Time contributor Randye Hoder wrote about how her daughter coped with these feelings in the weeks before move-in day. “As far as I was concerned, Emma went out with her friends too much, spent too much time at her boyfriend’s house and stayed out way too late,” Hoder wrote.
“Over time, I came to understand that Emma’s uncharacteristic rebellion and moodiness were her ways of ‘soiling the nest.’ In order to make it easier for her to leave in the fall, she was going to make my husband and I so miserable that we couldn’t wait for her to go. In other words, she was doing exactly what she was supposed to do — getting ready to grow up and out.”
Reaffirm your confidence in your child
We reached out to Margo Ewing Woodacre and Steffany Bane Carey — a mother-daughter team and co-authors of the book I’ll Miss You Too, a guide for families who have children leaving for college that is written from the perspective of both parent and child — for their advice on moving-in day.
“Let go and trust,” says Carey, who is able to offer insight to families from the perspective of the daughter. “You’ve raised your child this far. Hopefully, you have had a good conversation of possible outcomes of his/her decisions. Now, let your budding student be more responsible going forward.”
She continues: “Arm your child with the confidence that you believe in him. Let him take the lead with sign-ups and activities on move-in day.”
Woodacre says it’s perfectly fine for parents to let their emotions show, as long as they don’t become burdensome. “An occasional tear is normal, but don’t create guilt or worry for your child regarding your sadness,” she tells us.
Instead, Woodacre says to speak to the confidence you have in your child. “Saying ‘I’ll miss you when you are gone, however, I am excited for you,’ is a positive way to be honest and reassure your child that he or she is appreciated and loved.”
Write down all the things you cannot say in the moment
“I know that just thinking about drop off makes you either want to cry (leaving him!) or your head spin (how will we get it all there!!) but think, instead, of how you can make this a day that your family will remember and cherish forever,” writes the Grown & Flown team.
“We have not forgotten the day our own parents took us to college, if they did, and our kids may never forget this day. Think about a letter that says what you hope to impart. Think about the stupid utterances you do not want to make. But mostly think about how you will convey your love and caring and then send her on her way.”
Marshall P. Duke, a professor of psychology at Emory University, writes at The Huffington Post that this day is the perfect time to impart some wisdom on your children.
“This is a moment to tell them the big things,” Duke says. “Things you feel about them as children, as people. Wise things. Things that have guided you in your life. Ways that you hope they will live. Ways that you hope they will be. Big things. Life-level things.”
However, Duke admits he was too emotional on that day to verbalize those thoughts. “I was too emotional and couldn’t quite say what I wanted without crying or with a desirable level of equanimity. … As soon as you can after you leave the campus, write your child a letter — with a pen — on real paper — in your own hand. The first sentence should be something like, ‘When I left you at the campus today, (or at the airport , etc.) I could not tell you what I wanted to say, so I’ve written it all down…..’ Mail the letter to the child. It will not be deleted; it will not be tossed away; it will be kept. Its message will stick. Always.”
Expert advice well worth sharing with your child
We recently had the chance to speak with Jessica and Garrett Gee of The Bucket List Family, a family of four who are traveling long-term now, while their children are young. They are also raising funds to open a school in India to give local children in Bihar a place where they feel safe, grow their own knowledge and realize their own potential.
Jessica and Garrett both had amazing experiences during their college days: Jessica served a church mission in Vladivostok, Russia, and Garrett helped build an app that he and his co-founders eventually sold to Snapchat.
Here is what Jessica advises other aspiring world travelers:
“I’d encourage any college student to make travel a priority. Whether that is through study abroad, humanitarian work or general tourism, you will never regret it! My absolute favorite weekend in college was when we drove down to Mexico with 30 other students and helped out in an orphanage. And my only regret in college is that I didn’t try to get out more! So go out of your way to learn about every opportunity.”
Here is what Garrett advises other budding entrepreneurs:
“My greatest advice for people looking to be an entrepreneur is to acquire as many skills as you possibly can to build your own product. Learn to design and learn to code! Anyone can come up with an idea, but not everyone can build their idea. Become the most valuable person for your company who is more than just business savvy, but offers real value in the building process. You will have a much easier time finding impressive co-founders when you bring skills to the table. And that way, even if your business fails, you have highly valued skills to fall back on.”
Your family’s home: Some things change, and some things will always remain the same
Even though your college-age child might live elsewhere, both of you will still be referring to the same place when you say “home.” However, the dynamics of that home will evolve in the coming months. Here is what you need to know about adjusting alongside those changes.
The nest is never actually empty
Leslie Rasmussen, CEO of Good Life Nutrition, Inc. and mother of two, offered some sage advice to other parents when her oldest son left for college last year. Rasmussen emphasized how a child leaving for school is a new beginning for both of you.
After all, you were the one who spent the last 18 or so years teaching your child how to be independent and confident, Rasmussen wrote. Now is your chance to re-teach yourself some of those lessons. “Are there things you’ve always wanted to do, but never got to because you were busy with your kids? Maybe now’s the time to take up a hobby, or attend that Pilates class you’ve been putting off.”
Some might not be ready immediately to embrace the new beginning. Instead, they may feel grief at the physical and/or emotional separation from their child. This grief is a conflicting emotion, grief specialist Lisa Athan says, and she knows from first-hand experience.
“[My daughter] was only going an hour away to Monmouth University, but I still felt sad that she wouldn’t be living at home anymore,” Athan writes at Patch.com. “Don’t get me wrong; I also felt happy, proud and excited as well, but the grief was the emotion that I was feeling the strongest.
“I truly needed someone to listen to me [after she moved to college] but had trouble finding people who would truly just listen. Instead, when I did share about my feelings of grief, most people were not at all supportive and even looked at me strangely and said with a judgmental tone, ‘Aren’t you happy for her?,’ ‘Isn’t her going to college a good thing?,’ ‘I couldn’t wait til mine left.'”
But eventually, Athan says she did find other parents who understood what she was going through and could offer support. This let her find comfort in owning her feelings. “If you are a parent who has a child going away to college and you feel sad, find people who will listen to you and show comfort,” she advises. “Allow yourself to feel the grief. Don’t talk yourself out of how you feel.”
Resources for getting through the first weeks and months
Athan says many parents have found sympathetic ears in official university parent organizations, online forums and Facebook groups. Here are a few groups you can reach out to for that kind of support:
- The Families and Parents office at your child’s school. Many universities have newsletters, family events and networking opportunities so you can connect with other parents with children at the school.
- School-specific Facebook groups for parents. If you go to Facebook and simply search “parents” plus the name of your child’s school, you will probably find at least one group that has self-organized to support the needs of other parents. Join any of those groups and reach out.
- General Facebook parent support groups. Grown & Flown and UniversityParent both have their own Facebook groups whose members number in the thousands.
A place your child can always come back to
Throughout college, there will be plenty of opportunities for homecomings: holidays, long weekends, summer breaks. For students, it’s always nice to have a familiar place to come home to.
Woodacre recommends not re-purposing your child’s bedroom, at least for the first year. “Despite the desire to want to turn your child’s room into an office, exercise room, or little brother’s new room, the returning student should still be allowed to feel the welcoming comfort of his/her own space on return visits,” she says. “The right of passage does not necessarily mean losing territorial rights!”
At the same time, your home — and especially your child’s room — shouldn’t be a living snapshot of his or her childhood. You and the rest of the family will grow, as will your child. On some homecoming visits, new friends from college will join. Perhaps a significant other will, too, one day.
So, how do you balance that sense of home with that need to leave room for growth? Melissa Shultz, author of From Mom to Me Again: How I Survived My First Empty-Nest Year and Reinvented the Rest of My Life, recommends that your family set aside a little time to gather up sentimental items such as childhood toys, Halloween costumes and school art projects. Ideally, you could do this before your child leaves for school; otherwise, wait until a homecoming visit.
“Pare down — make memory boxes and fill them with the highlights, then store the boxes out of sight,” she tells Today. “This way, when the kids move away, you’ve made room for new memories and are less likely to be left alone with the blues.”
Navigating the emotions and expectations of a homecoming
“Perhaps one of the most difficult challenges for family members coping with an older child’s leave-taking for college is, ironically, adjusting to the student’s homecoming,” writes Dr. Zamostny, a former staff psychologist in the University of Maryland Counseling Center and assistant professor of psychology.
Dr. Zamostny says many conflicting emotions can arise when a student comes home for a few days from college. If your family has made adjustments and grown into new roles, there will be a period where everyone must get used to living with one another again, even if only for a weekend. This can be hard on children who have gotten comfortable with their own independence.
“Younger sibs and parents alike may be expecting to spend quality time with their long-lost college student only to find that the returnee has scheduled dates with friends and is never home,” Dr. Zamostny writes. “Again, realistic expectations and planning (e.g., scheduling one family gathering or activity during the reunion rather than expecting a weekend-long love fest) as well as empathic understanding of the conflicting needs and feelings of each family member can go a long way toward weathering (and even enjoying) the reunion.”
Furthermore, Woodacre says parents need to be ready for their children to come home feeling more independent — and confident in their expressions of independence. “Let’s face it; your child has been managing his life and responsibilities on his own schedule at school,” she says. “Plan to discuss the desired household rules and guidelines with respect to curfews, schedules, and housekeeping early during the first visit home. Be willing to negotiate.”
Embrace this change in the parent-child relationship
Beverly Amsel, Ph.D., a therapist in Manhattan, says many parents misunderstand their own worries about a child’s leaving for college. While those feelings are expressed as concerns about safety or worries about practical matters such as grades, the underlying fear is that the child is moving away emotionally as well as physically.
“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,” she writes at Good Therapy.
To accommodate this stage of development — of your child growing into adulthood — it’s necessary to redefine your own role in their lives a little bit.
Here are three ways you as a parent can guide the evolution.
1. Move from the role caregiver to mentor
Chris Alexander, a professor of political science and associate dean for international programs at Davidson College, writes at The Washington Post that parents of adult children should focus on helping their children find balance in their lives.
So, rather than managing the day-to-day aspect of navigating the world, you must get comfortable with lending advice as needed, based on your own experience, from afar. This will fly in the face of every instinct you’ve developed over the last 18 years, but it’s necessary for your family to grow.
“Bestowing your perspective from a distance might be the best strategy,” Alexander writes. “Because perspective requires distance. You can’t help your young person see the big picture if you become a character in it. You surrender your vantage point when you climb down into the details of their daily lives.
“You can’t remind them that the world will not end when they get a ‘C’ on a paper if you spent hours on the phone helping them write it. You can’t give good advice about managing a conflict with a professor or a roommate if you’ve become part of the drama. You can’t help them make choices that will be wise in the long term if your own vision gets constrained by their short-term view.”
Instead, he says parents should embrace the fact they have an incredible gift they can now offer: “the wisdom of a life lived longer than 18 years, shared from an elevation that allows you to see what they can’t.”
2. Find a level of connectivity that suits both of you
Karen Levin Coburn — senior consultant in residence at Washington University in St. Louis and co-author of the excellent book Letting Go — spoke to us about how parents can give their college-aged children the right amount of communication distance when the temptation to text or send a Facebook message is always right there.
“Finding the balance between staying connected and letting go has always been a challenge for parents of new college students,” she says. “It’s all part of the transition from day-to-day hands on parenting to a new phase in the relationship.”
“Today’s parents and students, however, have been used to much more frequent contact throughout the high school years than previous generations. Most text each other several times a day — to make arrangements, share plans, or simply check in with each other about each others’ comings and goings.”
For social media, Coburn says preferences differ from family to family. Some children prefer to wall off their lives on Facebook and Instagram from their parents. Others like having parents as friends. That means there’s only one way to strike the right balance: Talk about it together.
“There is no magic number of texts or calls per week that are appropriate,” Coburn says. “What’s much more important is the nature of the texts and calls. When a student calls asking mom or dad ‘What courses should I take?’ or stating ‘My roommate is driving me crazy,’ it may be tempting for the parent to jump in and give advice or try to solve the problem.”
“But a more balanced approach is to listen and then refer the student to the appropriate resource on campus. The goal is to connect, to be a support and a coach — to help the student become increasingly independent. College students benefit from having involved, supportive parents. They benefit from parents who also let go and encourage them to chart their own course.”
The team at Kansas State’s Parent and Family Association has a few ideas for how you and your child can work together to maintain appropriate levels of communication. First, establish a routine for calling each other, they suggest — perhaps at a certain hour one or two evenings per week.
Also, email frequently and don’t be afraid to call just to say “Hi,” but remember your role is to be available, not to hover. “Demonstrate confidence in your student’s judgement while reminding them to be on-guard for their safety,” the team at College Parents of America says. “Parents often know best the strengths and vulnerabilities of their students so don’t avoid them — share those concerns honestly and directly with your student.”
A couple of additional tips from CPA are worth mentioning here:
- If you want to get in touch by phone, ask in advance via text or email when a good time to call would be. “Generally speaking, don’t call college students early on weekend mornings and expect a good result,” they say.
- Be careful about the way you ask questions. Innocent curiosity can come across as prying without your knowing it. “Ask questions without putting your child on the defensive. This can be as tricky as speaking with your spouse, so think carefully of the questions you ask and when you ask them. For example, asking ‘What are you plans for the weekend?’ can come across more sincere than asking, ‘What did you do last night?'”
But remember, you don’t need to fit in a lifetime of advice over the phone or in a text. “I think sometimes as parents, we don’t trust that enough,” says Vicki Nelson, resource editor for CPA and interim director of academic advising at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts. “What parents don’t realize is how often their students quote their parents to us. Students are coming with those values.”
3. Create new family traditions
As a family, you’ve been creating traditions together for years, whether that was reading bedtime stories together when your child was much younger or taking a moment to share gratitude before a Thanksgiving meal.
Having a child leave for school creates an opportunity for your family to come up with new traditions. Regular phone calls home could be one of those traditions. Also, holiday breaks are the perfect time to reaffirm family roles through traditions.
Brett and Kate McKay at The Art of Manliness have a few excellent ideas for the holiday season:
- Break out the football on Thanksgiving morning. “For families that have huge extended family gatherings at Thanksgiving, a morning of touch football is a great way to work up an appetite for turkey and pumpkin pie later that day.
- Share a book each night in the lead-up to Christmas. “Wrap 24 books about Christmas, and open and read one each night during December,” they write. “On the 24th, the book that is opened is The Night Before Christmas.” If your child finishes the semester in mid-December, just adjust the countdown to accommodate however many days he or she will be home before Christmas Eve.
- Put regrets to the fire on New Year’s Eve. “Have each family member write down and then share one of their regrets from the past year. Then throw the regrets into the fireplace to symbolize a fresh start.”
Psychologist Dr. Paul White cautions parents that family members might not enthusiastically adopt a new tradition, but if one person takes the lead in realizing an idea and gets buy-in from one or two other family members, the tradition stands a good chance of sticking and becoming something everyone looks forward to.
Final thoughts: Appreciate that you’ve raised a child to become an adult
“Learning is a lifelong process,” Carey tells us. “Your student will make mistakes. He or she may change majors, fail a class, or get into a challenging situation. Stick by him/her and be there as a support system, if necessary.”
“…Believe it or not, students have a new appreciation for their parents once they graduate. ‘Real world’ can hit with a bang! To be able to work together, more as partners instead of a hierarchy, is an amazing feat. It can be a new and exciting transition for both the parent and child.”
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