Don't just apply to college… Position yourself.

When Big Brother or Sister Goes to College

Years ago, when the older daughter of family friends was leaving for college, I was trying to comfort the more reserved younger daughter, who was trying to prepare emotionally for her beloved sister’s departure. The two sisters had a close relationship, and I knew they would miss each other very much.

Trying to find the silver lining, I said, “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!”

As a psychology graduate student, I studied family systems, group dynamics, and grief counseling. I learned that whenever someone “exits the stage” of a family or any group, it affects that system’s dynamics as everyone scrambles to assume different roles, compensating for the loss of the individual who has left the scene (going to college, moving out, getting married or divorced, passing away). Who will be 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?

My husband and I experienced the requisite painful readjustment when our only son left for college years ago: the classic “empty nest” has received the attention it deserves as a major life transition. However, when a family has multiple children, the effect of one child leaving on the remaining siblings has not received as much focus. I can only imagine that the interactive, dynamic effects are profound, warranting discussion, empathy and support. Over the years, I have observed client families and friends experiencing this complex transition. Often, the whole family Skypes on a regular basis with the son or daughter who has gone off to college, and individual relationships between siblings are maintained, even enriched, through long distance e-contact during the college years.

Siblings dealing with the loss (yes, loss!) of a big brother or sister who departs for college is NOT as easy to find in self-help books as advice about getting your kid into college and surviving freshman year, or helping you as a parent adjust to a completely empty nest. A few books have brief chapters devoted to the siblings left behind: Don’t Tell Me What To Do, Just Send Money: The Essential Parenting Guide to the College Years by H.E. Johnson & C. Shelhaus-Miller and Almost Grown: Launching Your Child from High School to College by Patricia Pasick. If this is your first child going off to college, it would be helpful for you to read these chapters, so that you can be more sensitive to the possible feelings of the siblings left behind. They may not volunteer what is on their minds or even be able to articulate their emotions, so you may simply want to offer extra hugs or a caring question, such as, “How are you feeling about all these changes going on?”

Like all of 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. As I pointed out in my post, “The Move to College as Group Therapy,” it is a time for for reflection, understanding, and empathy, as well as trying out new roles and identities within the family. Be observant of younger siblings during these first few months, and be prepared for every reaction to the transition, ranging from loneliness and depression to relief and personality expansion. Be there to ask, and be there to listen.