College Bound: The Impact on the Siblings Left Behind

When you acknowledge and address the impact of your teen's departure on her brothers and sisters at home, you ensure that no one feels unimportant or left behind.
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The preparation process for college can be a long, arduous and even tense task. Between the ordering and buying, sorting and packing, it is enough to make even the coolest of customers just a wee bit anxious. The mix of emotions you experience as a parent can be overwhelming and confusing. You are proud and excited for your college-bound teen, nervous and scared. You may be even just a little bit regretful about all the things you wanted to do with her before she jumped the nest.

Standing in the background is your college bound teen's sibling. Maybe he has helped her pack, maybe he is simply on the sidelines watching, or perhaps even off doing his own thing. This going away to college thing after all, is not about him. In fact, he may be feeling like nothing, lately, is about him. The college prep process so often becomes an all-consuming event, a monster that takes over your life as well as the life of your departing child. Perhaps no one is more aware of this than the sibling (s) left behind.

Even if this is not the first teen you are sending off to college, it is still a major production. And while your younger children may not have a leading role in the show, it is important to make sure they are at least feeling like co-stars and not simply background extras.

As a parent it is easy to get caught up in the whirlwind. Of course, your college bound teen needs your help in getting it all together, but not at the expense of her siblings.

When a sibling leaves for college, the children left behind are obviously directly impacted, but how they are affected varies from family to family. Regardless of how close the siblings are, there are some universal truths regarding the experience. To begin with, the family dynamic is immediately impacted. Siblings who are left behind often report that their parents take a new and more focused interest in their lives. This may be perceived as either a positive or negative situation depending on your child's perspective. Younger siblings close in age to their brother or sister often complain that their parents place a new found pressure on them to start preparing for the college process. It is not uncommon for parents to focus more on grades and encourage siblings to engage in more activities in order to pump up their college resume.

If your kids are close to each other, the impact of the loss can be great. Older brothers and sisters play an important role in the lives of their siblings. They are often the superheroes to which your children look to support, guide and even lead them in life. Older sibs often serve as 'go to guides' offering information and solutions about everyday life situations.

With this in mind, then, it is helpful to encourage communication between your college teen and her siblings. Today's technology can certainly help to ensure that the connection between children remains consistent.

Take the time to talk with your college bound kid about her siblings still at home. It is natural for her to be so focused on what she is heading to that she may lose sight of the people she is leaving behind. Encourage her to routinely connect with her younger brothers and/or sisters. A quick text or regularly scheduled chat via computer or cell can ensure continuity between them. When your college bound teen makes an effort to communicate to her siblings she sends a clear message that they may be out of sight, but never out of mind.

If you notice that your son or daughter seems easily annoyed or irritable once his college-bound sib flies the coop, it is helpful to take a step back and assess the situation before you address it with him directly. Ask yourself if you have changed your approach toward your child. Are you focusing more on what he is doing? Perhaps, to the contrary, you have been less present, lost in your feelings of sadness or anxiety about the teen you just sent off to college. If you recognize a change in your own behavior, talk openly and honestly with your teen. If you sense that his attitude may be due to his own feelings of loss or sadness about his sibling's departure, reach out to him. A little bit of acknowledgement can go a long way.

College is an important milestone in your teen's life. As such, it is natural to invest your energy into ensuring that your college-bound teen makes a smooth and successful transition. When you acknowledge and address the impact of your teen's departure on her brothers and sisters at home, you ensure that no one feels unimportant or left behind. After all, as a family, you are all in this together.

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Jennifer A. Powell-Lunder, Psy. D. is currently a clinical administrator on an adolescent inpatient unit in a private psychiatric hospital. She is an adjunct Professor of Psychology at Pace University and maintains a private outpatient practice. She is also the creator of, a forum for family and friends.

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