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Challenge: Raising Siblings

How to Emotionally Support Kids When Their Siblings Leave for College

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When you are the baby of your family, you grow up with the constant noise of your older siblings running around the house. You also grow up having role models in the same house who love you unconditionally (even during arguments when they say they don't) to guide you through childhood and adolescence. Inevitably, your big brothers and sisters leave the nest, and you must fend for yourself. As the oldest of two, I never had to go through readjusting to life without older siblings at home. My ninth-grader is a different story.

Last year, I sent the first of my three children to college. When I did, my youngest developed a strong bond with my middle child, who was still home. But this past September, she went away to school, too, and my son is feeling the void. The house is quiet—too quiet sometimes—and he misses his sisters. I get it; I am a divorced single mom with full physical custody facing an almost empty nest. While dealing with my feelings of loss and sadness, I have also been helping my son deal with his. After some strained and awkward moments, I can offer a few suggestions to make the transition easier.

Talk to your child.

When you make the chaotic trek to move your children into college, the first thing you notice when you come home is the silence. Not long after, the loneliness hits. Your youngest child, who has only known a noisy home, may feel alone and bored because there is no one to hang out with at a moment's notice. All of a sudden, it becomes up to you to keep your child company.

Check in to make sure he or she is doing OK. Foster an environment in which your child can comfortably talk to you about his or her feelings, which means becoming a better listener, even if you think you are a good one already. If your child is not the type to discuss emotions (like a lot of children), bring up subjects your child is interested in discussing. Sounds obvious, right? Not necessarily, as I found out.

My son likes to talk about movies, a pastime I enjoy, too, similar to my daughters, one of whom is in film school. The thing is, at first, I didn't realize my son was interested in talking to me about movies. Most of the time, he had these conversations with his sisters. I work from home and tend to visit and revisit assignments during odd hours, doing things like writing while I am eating (as I am doing right now) or multi-tasking. I also easily get lost in my thoughts and tune out my surroundings. When I had a full house, no one ever really seemed to notice (or mind), since there was always another person around with whom to strike up a conversation.

Not anymore. I realized this when my son pointed out one night at dinner that I wasn't speaking to him very much. I was shocked, but I am so happy he told me. Since then, I am much more conversational. Thanks for the unsolicited advice, kiddo!

Spend time together.

Your child may experience boredom as a result of not having older siblings around to hang out with, especially during the summer and on weekends. It is up to you to keep your child occupied or help them learn better strategies to keep themselves occupied. You know your kid. What does he or she like to do?

With your oldest out of the house, there is no one around to divert your attention, meaning you have the added benefit of being alone together. If you meet resistance from your child about spending time with you one-on-one, try not to take it personally. I have already come to terms with the fact that, given a choice, my son would rather be with his friends or his sisters than out in public with me. That is why I take whatever time I can get, even if it has meant seeing a few bad movies at a movie theater in a town far, far away...

Try new things.

Being the only kid at home can get boring. Shake things up every once in a while by taking day trips, just you and your child. Go to the beach if the weather allows and explore a local town or city, or visit your older children at school so your youngest can see the siblings he or she misses, and so the two of you can bond during the car or plane ride there. As for us, we have a weekend trip coming up to Boston to visit my second daughter, and I know my son is already excited.

Offer more freedom.

Your child may need some extra attention from you while also wanting to spread his or her wings. Remind yourself not to hover too much. You don't want your child to feel trapped and, as a result, more isolated, precisely what you were trying to avoid. Give your child an appropriate amount of space to have fun as an "only" child. I have already given my son permission to take the short train ride to visit his oldest sister at school in New York City when he has a free day. It is up to you to judge what is appropriate. Just keep in mind your responsibility as a parent is to prepare your child for adulthood. Being overprotective will prepare your child for nothing.

Urge your children to call and FaceTime.

A plus-side of modern technology is that we can call each other from around the world whenever we want. If your child feels lonely and especially misses his or her siblings at a particular moment, remind him or her they are just a phone call away. Also, tell your college-age children to call home now and again because their younger sibling misses them, too. I told my daughters to keep in touch with their brother while they are at school. A phone call is not the same as seeing someone in person, but it is often the little things that can mean the most.

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