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Six Ways to Prep Kids When Sibs Off to College
by Author
The Courier Post
Date
 
My son had just turned 7 when he came to me with his very big concern.
“Mom, pretty soon ...” he began, “there will be some big changes.”
He was pacing and breathing and wringing his hands.
In his Bionicles pajamas.
“Changes?” I asked.

“Well, you know, college,” he said, speaking in a sort of code. He was referring to his older brother — three years between them — who was only 10 at the time. “Pretty soon, he’ll be finishing fifth grade,” explained my young, worried son, “and then middle school and then he’ll be in high school and then four years later, he’ll be going to college. And then soon after that, he’ll be working and soon after that he’ll be living in another house!”

It was one of those moments you never forget as a parent. He was anticipating the milestone change years before any actual transition was in progress. The perceptive, pensive sibling with 20/20 foresight could see into the near future and what he saw, well, scared him.

It’s not that our kids don’t want their siblings to grow up, leave and pursue their own lives. It’s that sibs, especially close sibs, can perceive this kind of change as a loss.

When our children are young, and we are younger versions of ourselves, none of us is too concerned with these moving chess pieces of life. We think of college as a future entity, surreal, a long dream that doesn’t wake us until at least the first whispers of junior high.

 
Patrick Oberstaedt, 18, is already packing up for college. (Photo: Chris LaChall/Courier-Post)
 
My sons are now 13 and 16, and college is a household word — between them. Music schools. East Coast? Big city? Small town? Who knows? One thing is clear. Now, instead of worrying about this landmark shift, my boys are actively planning it — together. Sure, the timing is different for them. My older son will be graduating high school as my younger son wraps up freshman year. But, regardless of timelines, they now talk about playing jazz together “wherever we are,” and for the moment, that seems to be the compass that’s leading them through this tricky terrain.

There’s no telling exactly what will unfold, but witnessing this emotionally charged unfolding got me thinking about how important it is to honor the sibling experience — from all sides of the crossroads.

Maybe the sibling who leaves for college has been the glue holding the unit together. Maybe he or she has been the focus — of admiration or concern. Maybe the sibling leaving was a source of stress, the one who rocked the boat, and now the boat is still. And maybe the one who is college-bound leaves behind his best buddy, the younger sib who he has second-parented.

Leaving the nest isn’t something to be dreaded, but respected and celebrated. In a real sense, it’s a developmental ritual, practiced through the years in smaller less perceptible ways, until we navigate this rite of passage.

When a child moves out of the house, it’s more than a life change. Depending on the family, it can usher in a rearrangement of the whole family structure. Dynamics shift. Attention, too. Priorities reorganize. Conversations change.

It is that seminal moment when letting go is the inevitable right path. Still, sibs don’t always know how to let go, don’t want to, and without guidance, can sometimes struggle with the transition in maladaptive ways, from depression and anxiety to a sudden disinterest in school to eating issues to substance dependency.

We’re never 100 percent ready to pack up our kids and see them off. Each family member has a personal and unique experience of bearing witness to the transition. Whether it’s next month or next year, when you are preparing for one or more of your children to leave the haven of home, here are six important keys to consider for a positive, healthy experience for all siblings, not just the one who is going to have to do his or her own laundry from now on.

 
When Patrick Oberstaedt, 18 (2nd from right), of Cherry Hill leaves for Temple University, it will be an adjustment for his sister Melissa, 14, mother Emilie, and brother Matthew, 10. (Photo: Chris LaChall/Courier-Post)
 
1. Embrace the pace: Emilie Oberstaedt, Cherry Hill mother of three, says it’s definitely an exciting time for her and her husband, Mark. Their oldest child Patrick is leaving home next month to study music at Temple University — on a full scholarship. Pat, an honors student who just graduated from Cherry Hill East High School, and a prodigious musician who plays, at last count, 10 instruments, is also the bass player with the local rock band No Commitment.

“It’s comforting to know he’s so close,” she says. “He’s ready. I know he’ll be able to live independently, and it will make life easier to have him close-by. He will have quick access to his band. He’s in a music program, which is open to the public, and I’m planning to attend his concerts.

“If we were packing him up and moving him halfway across the country, I’d probably be more down. I think it would definitely be harder to say goodbye for that distance.”

2. Boost the family’s emotional intelligence: With such a huge emphasis on GPA and SAT scores, we can overlook something more important than IQ. Emotional intelligence or EQ is what helps us navigate an unpredictable world with confidence, grit and grace. Kids who have spent years believing their grades and scores are the golden ticket to success tend to struggle more and suffer from depression and anxiety in college, compared to their peers who can cope with change — and failure.

Cherry Hill psychotherapist and licensed social worker Joanna Kleinman, mother of three, says, “I think the parent and the siblings need to pay attention to their inner emotions, because when we push away our feelings and try not to deal with them, they can consume us. A lot of people try to keep themselves busy so they don’t have to deal with how they feel. Siblings may feel excited about the change at the same time that they feel sad.”

Knowing and working through that is good EQ.

3. Emphasize the positives: “I’m very excited. For our son and for us,” says Oberstaedt. “It is a little scary, of course. You wonder, is he going to be able to juggle everything? One of the hardest things is keeping organized that first year.” If Emilie and Mark didn’t think he was ready, of course, the scenario would be different.

Admirably, they guide with trust and a good GPS — global parenting system.

Kleinman adds, “For the children who are still at home, look for positives. I’d encourage parents to be aware of the shift of responsibility to the siblings who are still at home. Talk with that child and come up with a plan to handle that shift as a family. Maybe the chores used to be shared and now there’s one child there. Discuss it as a family to figure out how to manage that. I’d suggest that the family make time to get together that first month or so and come together and talk. What’s working? What’s not working? What do we need to change? That’s really positive for everyone.”

4. Be conscious of sibling perspectives: When we are conscious of how sibs feel, we can create emotional and psychological scaffolding for them to make sense of change.

Kleinman says, “Don’t assume anything. Regardless of how your child is behaving, check in with him or her. Ask. Keep the dialogue open.”

Several years ago, as an anchor at NBC network, I interviewed a group of recovering girls and teens who had been struggling with eating disorders. One of the girls, at 13, was anorexic, and didn’t hesitate to let me know that things changed when her older brother left for college. “He was my big brother and my world,” she said.

It wasn’t long after his departure that she developed issues with food. The family’s attention, once directed in a large way toward their son, was now laser-focused on her recovery. Not every sibling will unconsciously act out their inner drama in dire ways. Prepare sibs by talking with them individually about how they feel and framing the imminent change as a natural and necessary chapter of life.

5. Be open to other options: Not every child leaves the family nest for college. And not every oldest sibling leaves first. Sharon Crocker Ardito, home-schooled — unschooled — her kids, now 19 and 22. Her daughter Courtlyn left home before her older brother.

Eighteen years ago, with two very young learners at her side, Ardito created a business from their Glassboro home, a deep learning experience for all of them. Partypalooza has grown into a successful company selling and shipping goody bags and novelties for children’s parties. Little did they know then that their future SEO and webmaster would one day be their son Ryan.

“My son chose not to go to college,” she says. “He does a great job working for the business, and enjoys it. Our daughter Courtlyn worked for us for awhile too, and then she had the opportunity to audition for the Young Americans, a music outreach program in Verona, California. She got in and starts in a couple of weeks. She’ll study for a year, then she’ll travel around the world after that, teaching singing and dancing in schools and communities.”

6. Celebrate change: We are always changing, from our cells to our circumstances. But, regardless of our innate propensity toward renewal and growth, we can sometimes resist and even avoid change. When we can create a climate of positive change in our home, about all aspects of life, we are, in effect, laying down a foundation for a positive perspective on progress and change. So that when one or more siblings leaves, it does not elicit unresolved grief in sibs at home, but rather empathic joy. Change is the mother of possibility. And new horizons. For everyone involved.

Ardito says, “We’re all meant to move on, to go on. We’re raising adults, not children. You want them to be happy in what they’re doing. It’s natural. I do miss my daughter. And I’m also ecstatic for her.”

Oberstaedt adds, “I think Pat’s brother and sister will adjust just fine. Melissa is heading into high school. And Matthew will be happy to have his own bedroom.

 
 
 

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