Skip to Content

Learn To Let Go: Parenting A College Student

parenting a college studentWe made it through my son’s college graduation. Pomp, circumstance and all. There was some kind of mace scepter that was ceremoniously carried across the stage. I don’t know what that was all about. Nor did the honorees seem to have a clue, or care.

Must be something left over from Cornelius Vanderbilt’s days.

Each year of college offered one more opportunity to learn a new way of parenting. Every semester one more exercise in letting go. Some of the lessons made me laugh. Some made me cry.

I found myself with required reading. Let’s refer to it as The Letting Go Handbook And Exercise Manual.

Freshman Year. First semester.

I learned I could tolerate going to bed knowing I wouldn’t see him the next day, or probably hear from him much at all. It became easier to walk by his empty room.

Thank all the powers that be for that.

This was the first and most vital lesson in the manual — which of course, I was learning and practicing as I went. No matter how many posts I read (or wrote for that matter) on the topic, I still had to live through it. Emotion by emotion. Experience by experience.

Freshman Year. Second semester.

When I heard, “Mom, you know I’m not coming home spring break, right?“, I turned another page in the handbook, and realized I had started a new chapter. My son would now not be home more than he was home.

I took a deep breath, and swallowed hard. All was as it should be, as I watched him take flight.

And I grabbed for my manual.

Sophomore Year. First Semester.

Those Bobby Flay Double Fudge and Peanut Butter Brownies that took four hours to make and mucho bucks to send? They don’t all get eaten. The remainder get found by me, stuck in the back of his fairly nasty fridge, as I’m cleaning out his room on Christmas break. Hard as rocks.

Note to self: Send money for pizza.

Sophomore Year. Second Semester.

College was halfway over. Both his life and mine were expanding in new and exciting ways. His, a new internship in another city. Mine, a new website on mental health. Both of us learning and growing, and making new relationships. It was a great lesson — to be focused on the present, and not look back.

My husband and I had plans of our own. Good ones. Exciting ones.

This chapter I liked.

Junior Year. First Semester.

I could finally keep all his friends straight. That was a minor miracle. When his life would get more complicated I learned to watch, letting him know I cared, but waiting for a call that might or might not come.

I probably overstepped a little.

But my hands still hurt from sitting on them.

Junior Year. Second Semester.

He was beginning to think about the future, big time. I listened to his process. I marveled at how much farther along in his maturity he was than I was at his age. I really liked the man I saw emerging from the boy.

That’s not always true, so I treasured it. So many parents have to deal with their now adult children having drug or alcohol addictions, or not being able to establish themselves after leaving home. That’s very painful, and extends hands-on parenthood sometimes far too long.

Senior Year. First Semester.

More big decisions about career and relationships. (Not for me, for him. I think I settled on that a while back.) By now, I had almost finished the handbook and really enjoyed the new place I held in his life.

Standing ready if called upon, and loving him.

Senior Year. Second Semester.

This is perhaps the most touching lesson, as I watch him cope with letting go. Letting go of the life he has built with very good friends. They are scattering far and wide, these men and women he has grown to love, and with whom he has shared so much. Some of which I know nothing about, and am probably glad that I don’t!

All I could say?

You’ll make it through. You’ll figure out how to stay in touch and create a new kind of relationship with them.”

But it’s still grieving, dealing with his own version of empty nest.

How well I know.

Margaret Rutherford

Dr. Margaret Rutherford is a clinical psychologist, who has practiced for over twenty years in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Since 2012, her writing has been found on her own website, as she writes about mental health, with a special focus on Perfectly Hidden Depression, midlife and relationship issues. She's the current mental health columnist for Midlife Boulevard, writes an advice column on Vibrant Nation, is a weekly columnist for The Good Men Project, and hosts a regular FB Live video session on depression for The Mighty. Her work and expertise can also be found on The Huffington Post, Sixty and Me, Better After 50, Reader's Digest, Prevention, Psychology Today, and The Cheat Sheet. Dr. Margaret recently has launched a new podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford, where you can listen to her direct and down-to-earth advice.

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:


Thursday 26th of May 2016

My "baby" just graduated high school and she, who never wanted to sleep away from us, is moving halfway across the state, in August, to attend college. Needless to say, I didn't make it past the first few lines of your story before the tears came. I try not to mourn the passing of this stage of my life. She is growing up and becoming the person she is meant to be. I will enjoy her new life experiences, and see her fairly often. I try keep perspective by remembering my brother and sister in law buried their 17 year old daughter just a few months prior to her scheduled high school graduation. They would love to be having the chance to see where life would have taken her. Still, some days I struggle...

Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Friday 27th of May 2016

Oh my gosh Amy. What a dilemma you have before you. The tremendous loss of your brother's family - your niece - which I am sure you had to grieve as well. And going through what is more "normal" empty nest. So the balance is not to really compare the one to other. One is permanent loss, and grief. One is grief by stages -- a more transitional loss. You will get used to it. You will let go. Because that's what needs to happen. You might have some bumps in the road, but you'll do it. The struggle is normal... just keep on working on letting go. And you'll be good. Thanks so much for commenting.

Anne Parris

Thursday 26th of May 2016

Congratulations and hugs, Margaret. My son is moving in with his girlfriend in two weeks and I have to go through some moving-on pains all over again. At least they are in town, and she's a lovely girl, but still.

Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Friday 27th of May 2016

Thanks Anne. That whole moving on thing - I called it my MOM movement in another post ("Move Over Mom") is quite challenging at times... lol. Good luck with yours! The next thing on my list is having him out on the west coast, and us here in Arkansas. I have a sneaky suspicion that some Air B&B listing out in LA will be getting a lot of use. We'll help each other through...


Wednesday 25th of May 2016

Letting go.... That's the hardest thing to do.... Brenda

Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Thursday 26th of May 2016

And one of the most fulfilling Brenda, or at least that's what I have found. Thanks!

Margaret Rutherford

Wednesday 25th of May 2016

I I have heard that heroin, mainly because it's cheap at this time, is particularly awful. Again, glad your daughter is staying away.

Patrick Weseman

Wednesday 25th of May 2016

The first year with my daughter was interesting and she was 90 minutes away. So, whenever she needed something she was on the phone. This past year, she transferred and was across the country. I think it made it better as she needed to grow up and did. The good thing about it was the that she got away from the party deal at first college. A lot of smoking weed was going. At the college she goes to now, the drug of choice is much harder and scarier and that has made her not hang out in the party scene.

My son is finishing up his first year at a local JC and it is so interesting. He lives with me and it is like having a giant pet. LOL. I need to remember his frontal lobe will not be developed until he is 26.

Margaret Rutherford

Wednesday 25th of May 2016

That's hilarious Patrick. And you keep your fingers crossed for 26! I know drugs are a huge problem - here at University of Arkansas, Adderal is favorite to abuse, and there are many others like the "...codone" meds. I'm glad you're daughter is staying away from them. Thanks for commenting!

Comments are closed.
Read previous post:
authentic coffee humor
Why I Like My Coffee Authentic

Elaine is the award-winning author of over eight books and is syndicated on several sites across the Web. She is...