Helping Siblings through the College Transition

As your child prepares to leave for college, saying good-bye is difficult for both those leaving and those being left behind, even siblings. Sibling relationships can be enduring, and a sense of loss can be felt when an older sibling heads off to college. Multiple changes are happening for the college sibling, and similarly, the children left behind are experiencing change in a newly constructed family unit. Changing family dynamics are inevitable when a child leaves for college. Consider sibling adjustments, too, as your family gets used to a new way of being.

Anticipate the new “family order”

  • The middle child or younger child will now take on the role of the oldest in the family.
  • Resources such as transportation, bedroom space, computer, etc. may need to be reallocated appropriately among those still at home.
  • This is the time to give special attention and support to the child/children still at home.
  • Family Transition Tip: Once a sibling leaves for college, give siblings still at home a journal where they can write feelings, fears, and questions about missing their sibling. Use the journal as an opportunity to discuss this family transition with the sibling left behind.

Be careful not to send a “guilt trip”

  • It is easy to try to “make” an older sibling spend time with a younger sibling, but allowing the reconnection to happen naturally will lead to a long-term renewed relationship.
  • Be careful not to make a returning college student feel guilty for wanting to spend time with friends, bringing new college friends home, or needing alone time, rather than spending time with family or siblings.
Staying Connected with the College Sibling

Plan family gatherings

  • Plan a dinner out for just family when the college student comes home to visit.
  • Explore a new city by meeting halfway between home and college for a day.
  • Have the younger sibling(s) and college sibling(s) collaboratively plan a family weekend getaway.

Virtual connection

  • Plan weekly phone calls for younger siblings to talk with their older sibling.
  • Provide access to email for siblings back home.
  • Help a sibling prepare a college care package.
  • Snail mail is always fun to get, so encourage siblings to write each other regularly.

Plan a campus visit

  • Family Weekend
  • Sibling Weekend
  • Homecoming
  • Athletic Events
Family Reconfiguration When College Student Arrives Home
  • Younger siblings experience mixed emotions and may need support from parents if they feel that a returning college student is monopolizing family time and resources.
  • Younger siblings may be confused by perceived and real changes in their college sibling. Once able to talk about everything and anything, siblings have led different lives over the past few months and may need to become re-acquainted.
  • The middle or youngest sibling has become comfortable with his role as the “oldest,” and will need to adjust to the adapted family hierarchy once again.
  • Family Transition Tip: Spend family time talking about living space and how space might be reallocated BEFORE your student leaves, so he is not surprised when he arrives home and finds his bedroom is now occupied by a sibling or has been made into a den.