When Siblings Go To College: Helping Younger Children Cope

Your second oldest is spending a lot of time in her room. Has been since your oldest went off to college two weeks ago. Jenny, 13, refuses to participate in family activities and even school and sports events, things she used to love doing. She won’t even accept invitations from friends.

If this is happening in your family, it could be that your younger children are simply having a very tough time adjusting to the absence of their older brother or sister. In Jenny’s case, she feels abandoned by her brother — and also guilty that she now gets his room. Simply put: She misses him.

What’s a parent to do?

“Transitions can be difficult, but there are things parents can do to make things easier for those left behind,” says Stephanie Speck, M.Ed., LPCC-S, clinical manager of youth community-based services for Harbor Behavioral Healthcare, an affiliate of ProMedica.

It’s a good idea, says Speck, to take some actions before the child leaves to prevent disruption. “Letting the younger siblings become cheerleaders for the older one is very helpful. Facilitating discussion of the pros and cons of each college at the dinner table and encouraging the college-age child to talk about what he or she is looking forward to and what he or she will miss will help the younger children feel included. When a choice has been made, parents can get t-shirts for the younger children with that college’s name on them. Celebrating the choice and projecting excitement about the new journey will help the younger children feel excited, too.”

Choosing a transitional item for the older child to give to the younger siblings is also helpful, Speck says. “The big brother or sister can pass on a favorite hoodie, blanket or a picture. This lets those left behind feel special, loved and not abandoned.”

Also helpful is taking the younger ones along when the older sibling moves to college. “Children can help their sibling decorate the room, hang a poster, put up a family picture,” Speck says, adding that when her big brother went off to college, she organized his book shelf. “It helped me feel a part of his college experience.”

After the sibling moves, parents can help their younger children adjust by encouraging them to write letters, send care packages and create a family video. “It’s important that each family member has a part in the transition time,” Speck says. “Children thrive on feeling needed.”

Choosing a set time when the family will communicate via Skype or Facetime is also helpful, Speck says, as is occasional posting on Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter and/or other social platforms.

Sending a child off to college is a wonderful time to discuss family values and how the family can help each member achieve his or her goals, Speck says. “This helps everyone feel invested in each other’s happiness and well-being.”

Most important, Speck says, is allowing and encouraging each child to express his or her feelings. “There really should be an ongoing discussion to reassure the younger siblings that everyone is safe and that their older sibling is still watching out for them.”

If the older sibling’s absence continues to negatively impact the other children, Speck advises professional intervention. “If their ability to live, laugh and love is compromised, I would advise parents find a counselor to help the child adjust. It’s very important that children know feelings are normal and good and that it’s important to express and manage them.”

For more information about Harbor Behavioral Health and their services, visit www.harbor.org.