The Anticipation of Children Leaving Home Can Create Struggles

The Anticipation of Children Leaving Home Can Create Struggles

When children go to college away from home, the hope is that the child is happy and eager to move out of the family home. The hope is that the parents are supportive of the decision and also prepared for the child to move out of the family home.

An interesting dynamic can occur within the household. Over the years, I have met many families where conflict begins the last year the student is in high school. It usually begins once acceptance to a university has occurred. Initially there is a lot of enthusiasm and pride. The parents are thrilled and the student is energized.

Sometimes the interaction between the parents and the child begins to change in a subtle way. Parents will report that the child is no longer communicating, speaking inappropriately, or being defiant. Children will report that the parents are very critical, limiting independence, and berating. Suddenly, the relationship has changed. Parents and children who had respectful, caring, supportive, and communicative interaction, are no longer liking each other.

In all fairness, these people are not conscious of the timing. Instead of attributing it to the totality of the situation, they each feel judged, misunderstood, not appreciated, and angry.

When put within the context of the timing, the explanation is often that the parties are creating an atmosphere where it is easier to separate from each other. The parents are anticipating the lack of the child’s physical presence in their lives and the sense of the value of their roles in providing guidance and support. The child begins to feel anxious about leaving home, making decisions, and the diminishment of parental support in the home.

And so, usually, one or the other become cranky. I have not often seen where both sides are reacting in this way to the anticipated separation. It is usually the parents or the child.

There is an unconscious motivation for these attitudes and behaviors.

For the parents, it is easier to have the child leave if I am not happy with the child. At times, parents will verbalize relief that the child is leaving home. It is easier to separate if I am not particularly fond of you at the time. You irritate me. You do not talk to me. You do not listen to me. You have a mind of your own and are inflexible. Do go.

For the child, it is easier to leave if I do not like you and find you a pain to be around. You are always trying to control me. You criticize my thoughts and feelings. You don’t understand my need to be independent. I need to leave.

And so, in each scenario, separating is easier. It is a relief.

Once the child is gone, hopefully each side discovers the ability to move on differently than they had unconsciously anticipated. Decisions are more independent and done so successfully. Having free time for a parent can be fulfilling. Communication and support continue in a new way.

The choreography may change, but the connection continues.

Dr. Natalie Gelman is an Alameda-based therapist. Submit questions to or through her website,