Goodbyes are never easy, but for some, sending a beloved older sibling off to college is downright painful. Much has been written about how parents — particularly moms — experience children leaving the nest, but what about the others who are left behind?
Experts say that a child’s self-image is formed in the context of the family. Older siblings affect how younger ones think about themselves — and shape their values, too. A younger child often looks to older ones for approval.
Many parents try to encourage close sibling relationships, which can be profound sources of joy throughout life. I know I’ve tried to foster warm feelings among my four children and often point out how lucky they are to have one another.
Still, siblings often have complex relationships. While they are friends and mentors, they may also compete with each other. When my kids were little, I loathed dealing with the sibling rivalry that got intense at times. She took my doll! He hurt my arm! She’s so mean — I hate her.
Even though my children are close to one another, it took me by surprise that my daughter Ryan’s departure for college — to a school four hours away — was so deeply felt by Caroline, six years her junior. As campus move-in time approached, Caroline cried on and off for days, and when Ryan’s high school friends gathered at our home to say goodbye, Caroline was inconsolable. No more showing off at middle school, getting picked up by a cool big sister who drives. No more trips to Dunkin Donuts or the mall. Looking back, I had an easier time letting my oldest go than poor Caroline did.
For insight, I spoke with Francine Rosenberg, PsyD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in parenting issues. “Caroline’s strong reaction suggests she feels a close bond with her older sister," Rosenberg told me. “Validating her sadness and giving her permission to speak with you about it will help."
Rosenberg also suggested finding out Caroline’s perspective about college. “She’s only 12 and has no context. Ask her what she thinks it means to be away at school. She may be wondering if Ryan will come home, and when she does, what it will be like," she explained. “Caroline may not realize that Ryan will still be available via cell phone."
She recommended that I reassure her that Ryan will be home periodically for extended visits, and that we will visit her, too. “Acknowledge that the whole family will miss Ryan, and it’s normal to feel sad and lonely at first," Rosenberg explains.
The new family dynamic will take some time to shake out. In the meantime, here are some additional pointers to help with the transition.
Encourage the older sibling to stay connected with the family. “Give your college student a] heads up that her younger brother is having a hard time," Rosenberg advises. “Nudge her to call or text occasionally — it will mean the world to little Tommy. But don’t pressure her. [Freshmen are coping with a lot too, and it may take a little while for them to figure out how to manage their time efficiently."
Point out the positives. “When an older child leaves home, parents may have more time to pay attention to the younger ones," says Rosenberg. “One less kid to help with homework, take shopping, drive around, etc. This may open up more time for family fun."
Create a personal keepsake. Take a picture of the siblings in her college dorm — or someplace else on campus. Display it in the younger sibiling’s bedroom to help her feel connected. Of course college paraphernalia — a T-shirt or other school memento — can also be of special significance to a younger child.
Minimize her feelings. When a sibling leaves, younger children may feel lonely because they are losing a pal, a source of comfort — someone who loves them. Acknowledge that it’s normal to miss someone you care about when she is far away. “Remind them that being away at college isn’t the end of the relationship. Sisters are sisters forever," Rosenberg says.
Let college students forget birthdays and other special occasions. “It may require a little effort on your part, but it’s important to teach them that keeping in touch with family members — and not just when they need something, but at other times, too — is an adult responsibility they need to take seriously," says Rosenberg. “At this point in their development, they should not be relying on you to advise them of important dates. “
Fortunately, children really are resilient. “Leaving for college is an end, but it’s also a beginning. Most younger siblings will adjust pretty quickly to the new family dynamic, but give them a few weeks."
Francine Rosenberg, PsyD, practices cognitive behavior therapy, specializing in treating anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders at Morris Psychological Group.