Don't just apply to college… Position yourself.

The Move to College as “Group Therapy”

“It always is harder to be left behind than to be the one to go…” -Brock Thoene.

A musher and his dogs racing

Years ago, I sat in a graduate psychology class on family systems therapy. The first day, our professor asked us to reflect on our families of origin, and introduce ourselves to the class by giving a one-word description of our family role. Students mentioned a wide spectrum of fascinating labels: peacemaker, hero, troublemaker, golden child, scapegoat, invisible child, baby of the family, nurturer, protector, rebel, black sheep, and so on. Studying group dynamics gave me insights into the workings of all social groups, from sled dog teams to human families. It naturally affects the way I view launching an adolescent from high school to college.

Group of happy young boys and girls sitting together with notes

In psychological terms, a group is two or more individuals connected by social relationships. Since they interact and influence each other, groups develop dynamic processes such as: roles, norms, communication styles, patterns of dominance, team effectiveness, and ways of handling conflict. Individual members unconsciously “carry” emotions for the group: one voices the group’s anger, another expresses the group’s anxiety, compassion, vulnerability, idealism, and so forth.

siblingscookThe nuclear family starts as a couple, with the addition of children; each individual who joins the group alters its dynamics. In the life of any family, there are comings and goings. Parents may leave the family unit due to divorce or death; new adults join as significant others or marriage partners, perhaps bringing stepchildren into the mix. Extended family members may move into the home due to eldercare, illness, unemployment, or other domestic situations. Children grow up and go to college, join the military, get a job, or marry; they sometimes return as boomerang kids. All these movements disrupt and ultimately recreate the family unit, changing roles and expectations over time. A family is therefore never a rigid institution; it is a dynamic work-in-process.

bigbrosaygoodbyeSo everyone with a family member about to go to college is in for a new experience. It is not just about the freshman who is going, or the parents waving goodbye. Each sibling, and even the family pet, is changed by the withdrawal of a brother or sister from daily life at home. A sibling’s reaction to leaving the family home, or being left behind when a brother or sister goes away, is as unique, complex and individual as each sibling’s self-image, temperament, and historical role within the family. Sensitive parents can observe these dynamics and provide loving support.

seriousgirlWhen the first-born daughter of family friends was leaving for college more than a decade ago,  I attempted to comfort the more reserved younger daughter, who was trying to prepare emotionally for her beloved sister’s departure. The two siblings had a close relationship, and I knew they would miss each other. Trying to find the silver lining, I suggested, “Now your parents will be able to give you their full attention!” After a few moments of silence, she replied, “Yeah. That’s what I’m afraid of!” When another daughter of family friends left for college, her middle school sister eagerly welcomed the chance to take center stage. Both bright and talented girls, there had always been competition between them. Covering her sibling’s high school graduation photo with her hands, the younger sister triumphantly proclaimed, “Sister no more!”

counselorMFTWhen one family member exits the stage of daily life, group dynamics psychologists tell us, the comfortable historical patterns are disrupted. Whether healthy or dysfunctional, the family has achieved a delicate balance over the years. Now everyone at home is suddenly thrown into a state of disequilibrium, temporary but disorienting chaos. The remaining family members scramble to adjust, to compensate for the role that has been relinquished. Who will become the “peacemaker” now that the “peacemaker” has left for college? The troublemaker, the worrier, the life of the party, the angry one, the analyzer, the soother, the communicator, the justice seeker?

emptynestOur society has given the “empty nest syndrome” great attention. It is a complex phenomenon, driven by many forces, notably cultural attitudes about women, marriage and aging. However, when an only child or last child leaves home, the  emotional upheaval is about group dynamics as well. Three may be a crowd, but it also offers an “other” focus for parents. When that focus is removed, the couple find themselves in a dual partnership once again, after two or three decades.

seniorcoupleconflictThe new empty nest partnership can be a daunting challenge, particularly if the spouses have not been able to address issues in their marriage during the demanding task of raising a family.  It is not a surprise that sometimes a separation or divorce may follow the last child’s move to college. Such a path is painful for parents and the college student, but with hard work it can hopefully lead to satisfying individual lives for the parents and young adult who has left home. For most couples, it is a time of transition and readjustment, of focusing on each other clearly with the eighteen year “project” no longer center stage. Hopefully, the couple can rediscover the qualities that drew them together in the first place, and appreciate the strengths that have evolved in the partner during the childrearing years.

congratulationsLike all life’s changes, the move to college is an opportunity for every member of the family to learn more about oneself, individually and in relation to others. It is a time for for reflection, understanding, and empathy, as well as trying out new roles and identities within the family. The move to college can be group therapy… a hidden opportunity for each family member’s personal growth.