Every year, college health clinics and deans' offices fill with tearful freshmen who've just embarked on one of the most exciting and stressful experiences of their lives. They've left their families, moved into a dorm filled with strangers, and every single thing in their lives, save for the teddy bear sprawled on the bed, is new. And now, they've just discovered their parents, who had stayed together for the sake of the children, are splitting up.
Some college deans even make a point of asking parents at college orientation sessions to hold it together for at least a few weeks after their kids move out. One campus official at the University of Redlands was downright blunt: "You've managed it for 18 years," he told parents. "Would another couple of months kill you?"
Family therapist Steven Freemire laughs when he hears that story, but he agrees. In many ways, college freshmen are like the toddler who takes his first steps across the room, then looks back for reassurance, to make sure mom and dad are still there. Your child may be living the college life, but he needs the security of knowing he still has a home base. “It is a fallacy," the Walnut Creek, CA psychologist says, "to think they’re launched."
Freemire applauds couples who stay together in order to provide structure and stability for their families - and, he says, spouses who care for one another and nurture their marriages through those hectic years of child rearing often compare the empty nest years to a renewed honeymoon.
But some marriages cannot be saved - neither party has any interest in repairing or reviving the relationship and they have simply waited until dorm move-in day to make their own move. But waiting a few weeks or even a few months will help their fledgling college student adapt to his new, exciting and challenging life without the emotional upheaval that accompanies news of a divorce.
If you can avoid it, says Freemire, don't touch the pier the moment your child sets sail. And if you must, at least reassure him that he will have a home to return to at Thanksgiving.