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Don't Forget Siblings' Feelings When Older Child Leaves for College

When my brother left for college halfway across the country, I felt as if I'd lost my best friend. We had just moved to a new state, and my main supporter and confidant was busy making his own new friends, focusing on his studies and experiencing being away from home for the first time, while I was struggling to adapt to a completely new environment. My sister was already in college back in the town from which we'd just moved, and I suddenly found myself an only child, with the dynamics between me and my parents shifting drastically, for better and worse.

As a clinical psychologist who has worked extensively within the college setting and with families in my practice, I have witnessed the many ways in which an adolescent's transition to college can impact the whole family—particularly siblings, who are often forgotten in the equation.

As in my own case and in several of the families I've worked with, children may feel a great sense of loss or abandonment when older siblings leave for college. Because parents are also adjusting to the new family dynamics, they can miss the signs of these feelings in their younger children.

In one family I worked with, the parents didn't notice how their shy middle daughter was becoming increasingly independent with her older sister away. Instead of welcoming her newfound confidence, allowing her to rise to the occasion, they became overprotective, leading to a power struggle and even a strained relationship between the middle and youngest daughters.

Another family was so involved in helping the elder child get a football scholarship that the younger brother was lost in the mix. While the elder brother struggled with his transition to college, leading to nightly phone calls with his parents, the younger brother earned phenomenal test scores and was offered academic scholarships to top schools. Without the support and guidance of his parents, he was unable to make a choice; he turned down every offer, leading him to delay college for a year.

Parents can have "tunnel vision" when it comes to sending a child to college, especially if it is the first child in the family to leave. Yet there are many ways to make college a family affair. A father I worked with who was struggling financially insisted on not allowing his son's college funding to interfere with the future college plans of his daughter. He was transparent about splitting his moderate college savings between his two children; as a result, his daughter felt that her experience of the college process was just as important as her brother's. Some families even use the college tour circuit as a road trip adventure with fun stops along the way.

It's important that families consider how the college transition affects all members and involve all members in the process in ways that are appropriate and meaningful, based on age and other relevant factors. Parents should consider how one child's leaving for college may impact the rest of the family.

Parents should expect that siblings may have mixed or conflicting feelings. Rather than focusing exclusively on the benefits for siblings, such as getting one's own room, greater access to the car or more bathroom time, parents should allow siblings to express all of their feelings. Some siblings feel guilty about being happy that an older sibling is leaving and should be encouraged to express this without judgment or consequences.

Just as parents likely want to know when their college-bound child will contact them, siblings may also need clear expectations. Siblings closer in age should develop their own plans to keep in contact, separate from communication with parents.

For me, my brother's departure for college meant that I suddenly had to figure things out on my own. In the end, this allowed me to develop a better sense of myself and to make decisions independently, without the input—and interference—of my siblings.

Dr. Marla Vannucci is a professor and a core faculty member of the Psy.D. program at the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago.