How to Handle Separation Anxiety: A Guide for Parents and Students

Whether it's parents worried about becoming empty-nesters or students becoming depressed, experts give advice on how to hold it together when going back to school

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Kathy Slaughter often wakes up in the middle of the night, thinking off all of the what-ifs that could occur once her daughter Allison, 18, starts her freshman year of college at Stanford University next month.

What if Allison ends up disliking the school or needs something? Or what is she becomes sick and Slaughter, who lives in Evanston, Ill., is too far away to help? These are just a couple of the scenarios she entertains.

“I think about it all of the time, and I feel much stress any time I think that she’s going so far away,” Slaughter admits. “There’s no way I could get to her in a hurry if I needed to. It would literally take half a day and a whole lot of money,” she says, adding that Allison is her youngest child, and that her leaving means she and her husband will now be empty nesters.

Slaughter may sound like an overprotective parent, but the separation anxiety she’s experiencing is very common. Dr. Janet Sallo Joyce, a Boulder, Colorado-based clinical psychologist, says separation anxiety is mostly based on fears of letting go of someone vital in your life, as well as fears about what types of changes will occur as a result of that transition. When it comes to children going away for school, sometimes it’s parents who have a harder time adjusting, she says. In other instances it’s students who struggle with it.

But, she says, “if the feelings are there, but are manageable and are not negatively impacting relationships, home life or work life, then they probably fall within the category of ‘normal.’”

Dr. Pamela Ellis, a Dayton, Ohio-based educational consultant and founder of Campus Education Strategies, says there are things parents can do ahead of time to get in front of the emotions tied to separation anxiety. She recommends families visit the campus prior to enrollment and get a sense of the layout and the student’s classes and daily schedule.

Ellis also recommends parents make connections with any administrators, faculty or other people in the community who are near the campus, and seek out family members or other people within their professional networks who are in the area and establish those relationships with the students, steps Slaughter has taken with her daughter at Stanford.

“That’s important from the standpoint of the student having another adult resource there and helps with the transition process because often time when students start they may not know anyone else other than other students or people in the dorm,” says Ellis, also recommends the book Letting Go: A Parent’s Guide to Today’s College Experience, (Adler & Adler) as a resource for parents.

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