It is hard for any parent to send their children off to college for the first time. The last two years of high school are so focused on the outcome of this process, creating increasing tension and expectation. SATs, college tours, essays and applications, and then waiting with baited breath for the colleges to send acceptances all raise the temperatures of parents and children.
It is a complex time for all families, and there is an additional level of complexity for divorced families.
Couples who have come through their divorce and are successfully working together as parents may have come to a good understanding about how to navigate the college process—specifically in terms of preparatory expenses, tuition payments, initial drop-offs, and visits home for holidays.
On the other hand, there are many families for whom this becomes another flashpoint—bringing out all the normal parental feelings about this transition while simultaneously triggering conflict between the parents.
Young adult children have their own worries: meeting the new roommates, settling in, and being away from home for the first time. They are embarking on a big life change and transition, and are filled with excitement and often trepidation.
The time has come, and the car is packed with a year’s worth of new clothing, toiletries, school supplies and dorm room essentials: hampers, toiletries, and necessities from stores like Bed, Bath & Beyond. The last thing that the soon-to-be freshman needs is to feel increased anxiety or agitation about how Mom and Dad are going to behave.
This is where planning and coordination become essential.
Parents who literally cannot talk to one another should devise a plan to avoid interaction. It could be that one comes up early and helps unload, has lunch, and then leaves. The other parent can arrive after lunch, help unpack, stay for dinner, and then head home. Or one parent drives up to school with the child the night before, spends the morning and leaves before lunch, and the other may be doing the last minute shopping in town, and takes over when the other parent leaves.
In so doing, the child’s needs are paramount, and the parents are reducing the chance of exposing the child to any conflict. The parents should be the ones to work it out (not the child).
Parents should also work out all the specifics that will make for a smooth college experience. This would include things like access to money for books and supplies, plans to travel home for holidays, and holiday arrangements that don’t put your college-aged child in the middle. Making plans that don’t put your child in the position of choosing between parents on their vacations home from college protect them from feeling uncertain or disloyal. Again, it’s important for the parents to work this out without dragging the child into conflict over it.
Most importantly, parents need to recognize that starting college is:
- a huge transition for the child and family; and
- an event that will likely trigger and stir up difficult emotions.
In addition, it is important to remember that:
- The child should be kept away from any turmoil; and
- Parents who can collaborate should (if not, parents should coordinate but do things separately with supportive scaffolding for the child).
Planning and coordination—in advance—is extremely valuable: Who’s going to do what? How are you going to work as a team?
Avoid conflict by not leaving anything to chance.
We are here to help parents reduce conflict and teach the skills of effective parental communication for divorced parents. Please contact us with your questions.
My Divorce Recovery
Lauren Behrman, Ph.D.
Jeffrey Zimmerman, Ph.D., ABPP