Still at home

Help younger siblings adjust when the older one goes to college


Hilary Masell Oswald


A new school year arrives this month. Fifth-graders move to sixth grade. Juniors in high school claim their coveted seats in the senior class. And many members of the class of 2005 will begin college careers in places where few folks have debated the Cubs vs. White Sox.  

Many parents plan for college years in advance. They save money. They visit campuses. They sit by eagerly as envelopes arrive from colleges and universities, and they advise—or try to—as their kids decide where to enroll.

Then in August, parents load the car and chauffeur their 17- and 18-year-olds on to the next phase of their lives.

Parents feel good: their children are at college. College freshmen feel good: their parents aren’t at college.

But younger siblings might not feel so good.

During the long, arduous college search process, it’s easy to forget that younger siblings can’t or don’t anticipate how their older brother’s or sister’s move to campus will affect their lives. Or if they do anticipate the changes at home, they might not be eager to broach the topic.

So how can you help the younger ones adjust to the older sibling’s move to college? Chicago-area families and local psychologists have a few suggestions.

Connect and communicate

Pamela Rebeck, a psychologist with A Psychological Service of Naperville, says it’s important for parents to talk about how the move to college is a normal part of growing up.

“Younger children might feel anxious about their own departure for college, even if it’s years away; they might think that they’d never want to leave home,” she says. “It’s important for parents to talk about how the oldest child is ready for this great opportunity.”

And it helps to include the younger siblings in the preparations. When Debbie Michelini’s daughter Jessica prepared for her move to Eastern Illinois University last fall, the Michelinis made sure little brother Dominic, 12, was involved. “We talked about it a lot,” Debbie says. “He helped her pack and load the car. He came to campus with us to help her unload, move her in and see her new room.” 

Once Jessica was settled in and the Michelinis returned to their Lake Zurich home, Dominic still had to adjust. “He seemed sad at first—a bit lonely. But then he realized, ‘Hey! I can use her room as an extra room for me,’ ” Debbie remembers. Dominic slept in his sister’s room frequently that first month, and Debbie suspects that he felt close to her there.

Jeffry Manasse, a psychologist in Naperville, says these family connections are important—even if one member of the family doesn’t live in the house anymore. Younger siblings will react in different ways. Some children will sense emptiness in the house while others will seem pleased the oldest is gone. Regardless, it’s important to emphasize the college student is still part of the family. One of the easiest ways to support this connection is by providing simple ways to communicate frequently.

“Technology offers plenty of opportunity,” Manasse says. “It’s easier to communicate with college students today than it has ever been.”

Depending on a child’s age, siblings can correspond via e-mail or instant messages on their computers. Many cell phone companies offer plans that allow family members to call one another free of charge. A young child might find comfort in drawing a special picture for his big sister and sending it to her.

Rebeck and Manasse both suggest parents enlist the help of their college students to reach out to younger siblings at home. Encourage your college student to call his younger sister. Ask him to mail his sister a T-shirt with the name of the college or university on it. The more the younger sibling knows about the older child’s life and surroundings, the more comfortable she will feel with his absence.

Visit early and often

A visit to campus is another opportunity to help younger siblings adjust. Many colleges and universities offer family weekends, usually in the fall, when parents and siblings of students can spend the weekend on campus. Frequently, colleges offer special activities during these weekends, including athletic events, theatrical productions and concerts. These weekends can be excellent opportunities for younger siblings to gain familiarity with their big brother’s or sister’s surroundings.

Several colleges and universities also offer weekends when students can host their siblings. At Eastern Illinois University, the student-led Residence Hall Association has been sponsoring Kids’ Weekend for more than 30 years. Younger brothers and sisters (and even some nieces and nephews), who range in age from 6 to 15 years old, arrive on campus on Friday night for the opening party, complete with a Hula- Hoop contest, crab races and limbo. Kids stay overnight with their hosts in the dorm rooms, and the next day each hall sponsors a different kid-friendly activity. Last year, more than 100 siblings participated.

“I think the weekend helps fill a need [for the college students] to connect with their little brothers and sisters, even though they might not admit it,” says Mark Hudson, director of university housing and dining services at Eastern Illinois University.

Be honest

Many younger siblings will be surprisingly sensitive to how their parents handle this transition. Manasse encourages parents to share their own feelings. “Missing a family member is normal; it’s good for younger children to know that. But it’s also important for parents to talk about this event as a positive event, not as a loss.”

College is a frequent topic of conversation in the Hornells' Glen Ellyn home, sparked in part by big sister Laura’s enthusiasm for the subject. Matt and Lindsay Hornell seem comfortable chatting about their sister’s move to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign this month.

“I’m sad—I’ll miss her,” says Matt, who will enter seventh grade this fall. “But I’m excited for her, too. She’s been wanting to go to college for a long time.”

Lindsay, who will be a junior in high school this fall, adds: “Laura’s my best friend. It’s weird to think that she’ll never live in our house again.” She pauses to consider the benefits of the arrangement. “I will get to redecorate the room we share.” She smiles.

As Lindsay begins her own college search, Matt seems well prepared for the cycle to continue. His advice for other younger siblings? “Don’t be too sad.” He looks at his sister. “Your big brothers and sisters will always be there for you.” 

Kids Eat Chicago

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