Two days, four hours and 53 minutes. That is the exact amount of time before my oldest daughter, a college freshman, comes home for her first school break. As you can tell, I have missed her — a lot.
Much attention is paid to how parents feel when a child goes away to college or moves out on their own. Frankly, we experience a variety of feelings: sadness, pride, fear and even regret for not having better used the time we had with them before they spread their wings. However, younger siblings and their feelings when a beloved brother or sister moves out are often overlooked.
"The impact of a sibling leaving home could be positive, negative or a mixture of both," says Jennifer McWaters, a psychologist with the Adolescent Partial Hospitalization Program at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital. "It really depends on so many individual factors. What is most important is that the family identifies and talks about how this change has impacted them."
Each family member has a unique personality that enriches the family dynamic. When one member is absent, it is not uncommon to feel that change or even feel a sense of loss that a piece of your family is missing.
When asked, my younger daughters will tell you that they really do miss their sister. My 14-year-old daughter misses her personal chauffeur, confidant and companion. My 8-year-old daughter misses the sister who is always up for an outdoor adventure or patient enough to teach her how to draw her favorite animated character. They feel her absence far more than I thought.
Dr. McWaters says this is not unusual. If your older and younger siblings were particularly close, your younger children may feel a significant sense of loss and sadness at losing their close friend or confidant. She reminds us that each child will process the change in their own way. It is important to not assume that your child is coping effectively because they are not talking about it or appear to be fine, as children can be either external or more internal processors.
Dr. McWaters encourages parents to patiently facilitate conversations about each family member's reaction and how they are coping. Asking exploratory questions and acknowledging your younger children's feelings, whether positive or negative, opens the door for communication.
"You can start the conversation by modeling emotional expression," she says. "Try saying something like, 'Since Johnny left for college, I noticed that I sometimes feel a little sad and miss him. I'm wondering how it's been for you since he left?'"
According to Dr. McWaters, there are five common changes that can occur when an older child moves away:
- Younger siblings may be asked to take on tasks or responsibilities that were previously managed by the older sibling. They can benefit from their new role, but may also negatively respond to having more responsibilities.
- You may be able to spend more individual time and give more positive attention to your younger children.
- Younger siblings may feel like they have more freedom or space to pursue their interests and, in turn, you may have more resources to devote to your younger children.
- In school, a younger sibling may be able to develop their own unique identity more freely and easily when their older sibling graduates.
- If there are two or more younger children still in the home, they might develop a new bond as they go through these changes together.
"An older sibling's involvement in a younger sibling's life can have a tremendous positive impact on their self-esteem," she says. "Older siblings are often go-to guides for younger siblings, and they can continue to have that impact by staying actively involved in their lives."
As Dr. McWaters suggests, my daughter's move away has definitely been a challenge at times. However, it has also provided some surprising benefits. Seeing my younger girls spending more time together or watching their faces light up when we are able to attend more of their sports games and school activities has helped to lessen the blow of missing our oldest.
And I must admit, the absence of fights over who gets to ride in the front seat of the car hasn't been all bad either.