By Jennifer Spengler, a health and wellness writer for Sharp Health News and a marketing specialist with Sharp HealthCare.
In the fall of 2020, college students across the country looked wistfully at their schools’ marketing materials and websites, wishing they could be studying in one of the pictured ivy-covered buildings instead of their childhood bedrooms. COVID-19 had crushed their “college experience” dreams, with many students forced to take online classes — some from their homes and others from their dorm rooms — where visitors weren’t allowed and masks were required once they went through their doors.
Fast forward one year later, and students from all 50 states are over-packing their parents’ cars, filling gigantic storage tubs and suitcases, and heading to campuses from the tip of Florida to the top of Washington. My middle daughter, the second to leave for college, is one of those kids, heading somewhere in the middle of the two for her sophomore year.
While COVID-19 is not yet behind us, universities have begun welcoming students back, carefully watching both vaccination numbers and COVID cases. And this school year promises to look slightly more like the college experience of the past.
College kids celebrate while parents secretly cry
This return to semi-normalcy is great news for most kids, but parents like me are feeling a tad unsure. Without a doubt, the spread of COVID-19 can cause us concern. But for many, it’s the quiet house, empty seat at the dinner table and suddenly abundant free time — no longer filled with carpools and kids’ activities — that are the hardest to bear.
Yes, sending a grown child off to college is what we have worked toward all those years. But there’s no question it can feel bittersweet. Just as a new parent loves their tiny newborn, a more seasoned parent still adores their much bigger young adult. We know it’s time to let go but want to make sure we keep in touch.
Unfortunately, there is the very real risk that one’s desire to stay connected can drive your special parent-child bond apart. Parents have to find a careful balance between seeming too clingy or helicopter-like and being within reach when you’re needed. And it’s not always easy to do.
Three calls a day is probably too much. Friending them on all their social media accounts could be seen as “cringey,” as they would say. Screaming “I’m finally free!” as you take off for an around-the-world tour, never checking in, is probably a tad too little.
5 cringe-free ways to stay connected
So, after watching one daughter graduate from college and settle in another city, and sending my second one off for another year of school, here are the five ways I found work best to help me stay close with my grown daughters when we’re far apart:
1. Start a family text group. Creating an ongoing group thread makes it easy to share family news, send updates on hometown gossip and post funny memes. Photos of the family pets are always a big hit and sure to garner at least a “ha ha” or “heart” — a crafty way to see if they’re awake in time for class — or, when really desperate, to get “proof of life.”
2. Schedule a weekly video call. Find a time that’s convenient to your student to check in and get your eyes on them. Do they look tired, hungry, a little upset? If so, you can offer love and support from afar, even if they weren’t ready to ask for it. Do they look tired, hungry and like they’re abundantly happy? Then things are probably going as they should — but you might want to casually drop a reminder that schooling comes before socializing.
3. Send care packages. Sure, they may be of adult age, but most of them are still big kids. Fill a box with their favorite snacks; photos from home (again, images of the pets are likely their top choice); new socks in case laundry might not be a priority; and something from their room —stuffed animal, inspirational sticky note, their favorite mug — they either forgot or were too embarrassed for their new roommate to see.
4. Schedule an annual visit. While travel can be tricky and expensive right now, knowing that you have a visit on the calendar will give you both a little peace of mind. School-planned parents’ weekends are activity-packed and fun, but often crowded and busy. Decide what’s most important to you: time alone with your kid or getting to know all their friends and seeing them in their element on a campus filled with people and parties. Whatever you choose, be prepared to feed more than your own student, get less sleep than you thought was humanly possible, and fill your heart with reconnection.
5. Drop a note. It’s OK to send a random email, cut and paste some useful info you see on the school’s site or a parents’ social media group into a quick text, or email a family recipe in case they find themselves with time and space to share a favorite meal with their new friends. While most college kids aren’t huge fans of constant phone calls and demands for every detail, knowing someone is thinking of them every once in a while can help them get through those challenging days. Just don’t always expect a response — unless, of course, you include a picture of the pets.