College move-in day is a milestone, the beginning of a new chapter for parents and their children. For families who’ve had to navigate divorce, this transition can, in particular, be emotionally fraught. Insecurity and uncertainty are typical for the college-bound child as much as for their divorced parent(s).
The presence of an ex-spouse on college move-in day can be an added source of tension; no one’s denying that. But it’s important to remember that this day is about your child and their future. Not yours. Not your ex’s. And certainly not your divorce.
Keeping lines of communication open with your ex-spouse and setting boundaries that consider each other’s feelings and emotions can go a long way. If you haven’t been doing so up to now, it’s never too late to start.
While it won’t necessarily be easy, working with your child’s other parent to create a supportive atmosphere and present a united front on college move-in day will ultimately benefit your child as they embark on their college career. Here are a few ideas about how to go about it so your child remains the focus.
Include your ex-spouse in the planning.
Especially if you're the more hands-on parent, extending an invitation to an ex-spouse to get involved in the planning and keeping them informed of the move-in day schedule can help to alleviate potential conflicts. Here’s the trick, though: No judgment from you.
Your ex-spouse might not meet your expectations. You might have had in mind they do more of the heavy lifting (literally and figuratively) than they sign on for. It’s understandable to be disappointed, even livid, but you can’t control someone else’s behavior, least of all your ex’s, so don’t even bother trying. Doing so will only cause acrimony between you in anticipation of a day when you need anything but that.
This should also go without saying, but I'll say it anyway: Don’t involve your child in any discussions about who isn’t doing their “fair” share. Guaranteed, the person who will end up dealing with the lion’s share of the “unfairness” will be your college student as they have to act as a referee between you.
Agreeing to work as a team, as what I like to call co-captains of team child, despite the fact that your relationship with your ex has changed, demonstrates that your commitment to your children remains unwavering. Your college-age child will notice, even if they don’t say so specifically.
By setting aside your differences with your ex, at least for a day or two, and focusing on your shared goal of supporting your child as they move into college, you can create a positive and memorable move-in day experience. For them and for yourselves.
Involve your college-bound child’s siblings.
The involvement of siblings (possibly step-siblings, depending on the relationship) in the move-in process can be invaluable. Not only do siblings provide emotional support, but they also offer practical assistance, making the transition smoother for everyone involved.
Speaking as someone who’s moved six kids into college — my four and my second husband’s two — there’s a lot of stuff to lug up to a dorm room, often without the help of an elevator or not enough of them for the demand. This can create stress for anyone.
Older or younger, children of all ages can take part in their siblings’ move-in days, providing a sense of familiarity and comfort in an otherwise foreign environment. Their presence can lighten the physical and emotional load of the day and what it means for the future, helping to strengthen the family's bond for the long haul. In this way, college move-in day can be a true labor of love.
Create an environment that feels like a home away from home.
When moving your child into their college dorm, create an environment that feels like a home away from home. That can mean bringing along familiar items such as favorite blankets, family photos, and keepsakes.
It also means allowing them to put their “stamp” on their new space, infusing their personality into it without you and your ex exerting your control. In other words, let your college-age pick and choose what would make them feel most comfortable.
By surrounding your children with the comforts of home, with mementos that reflect their relationship with the entire family (your ex-spouse included), and giving them the freedom to express themselves, you can better help your child to create a space where they feel secure and supported. Again, they'll take notice.
Encourage open and honest communication with your college-bound child.
As a parent, it’s useful to give a nod to the unique challenges faced by children of divorce. Anxiety can be heightened during the transition to college life, and it’s important to address these concerns with sensitivity and understanding.
Due to the timing and structure of some divorce agreements, college move-in can also coincide with the sale of the marital home. This can exacerbate feelings of insecurity as your young adult must face an additional transition to a new living space. To provide the support they need, even if you think they're “doing fine,” continue to encourage your child to express their feelings and reassure them that their well-being is and will remain your and their other parent’s top priority.
Monitor your child’s adjustment.
As you begin to communicate with your freshman, learn how to listen between the lines about how they're faring in their new environment. Are they happy? Sad? Anxious? Depressed? Do regular check-ins and encourage your child’s other parent to do the same.
Now for what’s arguably the hardest part. After moving a child into college, part of a parent’s job is to give them the space to become more independent. This can be difficult, especially for a divorced parent who has, as a result of their divorce, gotten to spend a lot more one-on-one time with the child than they might have if they were married. Though you might be tempted to over-parent, calling and texting more often than your college-age child wants or needs, do your best not to.
Instead, keep those lines of communication open with your ex (or establish them) in case you have to or want to send that text to them: “How’s [child’s name] doing today? We didn’t get to speak.” Or, “How do you think [child’s name] is doing at school? I would love to get your take.”
In the same vein, volunteer information to your ex about concerns you might have or when you hear happy news. College kids aren’t always so diligent when it comes to sharing news, good and bad, equally with their parents. The better relationship you forge with your ex, the more free flow of information there will be between the three of you.
Pat yourself on the back.
Give yourself a pat on the back. Your ex, too, if you feel the urge. Raising kids is joyful. And hard. But you did it — divorce and all. You got your freshman to where they are, so take a moment to feel pride and pleasure in that accomplishment in spite of all you’ve been through. Better yet, do something for you. You earned it, graduate.