My oldest is going to college. How do I make the transition easy for her siblings?

This is a post by Jeri Kayser, who’s been a Child Life Specialist at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota since 1985. Her educational background is in child development and psychology. She has three children who have been a great source of anecdotes to help illustrate developmental perspective. They’re wonderful at being good sports about it.

If you’re a parent of a college-bound kid, your life has probably been taken over by filling out FAFSA forms, figuring out finances, deciding who’s bringing the fridge and shopping for dorm sheets. They really had to make them some weird size, huh?

You may not have paid attention to how this transition has impacted your younger children still at home. But, it’s not too late to think about what might work best for your family when your oldest leaves for college, especially if your oldest is just entering his or her senior year in high school this year.

There will be big changes and more subtle ones. Sometimes it’s the little changes that feel more disruptive because they have a way of sneaking up on you.

When our oldest left for school, it took our family forever to set the table for four people instead of five. When that fifth place setting was obviously unnecessary, our youngest would always groan, “Oh yeah, Zach’s not here.”

This shift in family life begins to firm up over that heavily ritualistic space of time known as senior year. Every sport or club banquet honoring seniors, every college fair, the ACT test, senior pictures, prom and graduation celebrations all remind us of what’s to come. At a grad party we attended this spring, I found a younger sibling greeting guests. She spied me, sighed and said, “This has been the ‘All Andrea, All Year- year.’ I’m sick of it!”

It can be a bit daunting to achieve balance between giving your kids the attention they need and preparing yourself, your college-bound child and their siblings for this next step. My hope is that the following tips will help your family:

Visit college with the entire family

Take your younger kids on some college visits. It’ll help them understand what college is about and why their big brother is  so excited. Plus, it’s a family trip! Many college visit programs include activities for siblings. Our youngest loved checking out the bookstores. It’s fun to get them a T-shirt from the chosen school because it’s a direct physical connection to their big sibling when they wear the shirt.

Involve siblings in graduation party prep

It’s a ton of work to get ready for a grad party. Assigning a younger child to sort through pictures and make a poster can be a huge help. It’s also a great way for everyone to reflect on all of the shared memories.

Move-in day: Get all hands on deck

Having siblings help on the day your freshman moves into her dorm is another set of legs to run up those three flights of stairs with all of the stuff, but more importantly it’s a great opportunity for them to see where their big sister will be living. They can also make their own imprint on the room by contributing with a picture, stuffed animal or shared item. When you leave, make plans for when your family will next see each other. Even if that isn’t until Thanksgiving, there’s comfort in knowing when you will see each other again.

Use social media

Facebook, Twitter, Skype, texting and emailing can be easy ways to stay in touch. Our kids share an iTunes account and have grown to love the fact that they can listen to each others’ current interests. When my daughter is missing one of her brothers, she likes to listen to one of their favorite songs.

Be mindful that your freshman needs time to establish relationships with new friends at college and most schools recommend that they stay at school for about six weeks without visiting in person. This is a fantastic rule and a tough one to follow, but it’s definitely worth it for their enjoyment of everything the college experience has to offer. Be ready to intervene if your younger children are communicating too much.

Send care packages

Every kid likes to get a care package. And there’s no better time like the present – when back-to-school shopping is in full swing – to start collecting shoe boxes for transporting goodies to your child. As you find items that would be of interest to your freshman, put them in the box and when you fill it up, send it off. Younger siblings can help prepare the care package.

Parents: You’ve got this. Here’s to a great school year!

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