Although it's exciting and fulfilling, sending a child to college has rarely been easy, family psychology experts say. The move marks the end of the active stage of child-rearing and a shift to more passive kind of parenting, said Dr. Karen Soren, director of adolescent health services at New York-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital.
For a generation of so-called "helicopter" parents — mothers and fathers who were urged to be extensively involved in their children's academic and social lives — the shift can be particularly hard, said Marjorie Savage, director of a University of Minnesota parent program and author of a book on the college transition.
Modern-day parents typically struggle to wean themselves from intense, daily engagement with their college-age children, even as the children struggle to establish themselves as independent young adults, Savage said.
"We tell parents to think about the difference between letting them go and letting them grow," she said.
That may be easier said than done, especially this year, when new college students are starting school in the midst of a historic recession, which has added financial worry to the emotional toll of the transition.
More than 53 percent of freshmen at four-year colleges said they and their families had some concern about paying for school, and another 11 percent said they had major concerns, according to a December poll by the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Yet, finances take a back seat to emotions when it comes time for the actual separation — and then the weeks and months that follow.
"It can be very hard," said Joyce Holl, executive director of the National Orientation Directors Association, an agency that provides education and resources for college officials. "It's like that first day of kindergarten, but my child's not coming home after school," she said.
Fortunately for parents and students, there's a science to the freshman year departure process. From convocation ceremonies to parent barbecues, every activity is designed to ease parents away from the school — even as students are eased in.