Parent first person

The Tricky Closeness-and-Distance Dance

by Jane Thorley Roeschley
October, 2013

Jane RoeschleyThis month was our final Bluffton University Homecoming in eleven consecutive years of having a child at Bluffton. Graduation this coming May will definitely be bittersweet, a conclusion to over a decade of being college parents.

What advice might we have for other parents?  I found that adjustment to college is a learning curve not only for students, but also for parents!  One key adjustment is the challenge of learning to do the very tricky closeness-and-distance "dance."

It is a key part of figuring out the next phase of parenting -- parenting an emerging young adult.

A child away at college is an experience in new types of both distance and closeness for parents and children. It's an emotional experience, because sending off a beloved child into a new season of independence and self-sufficiency can throw one's heart into aches.

It's tricky, because tending the amount of closeness and/or distance that is right can and does change, depending on a child's readiness for independence and their adjustments to the challenges and opportunities coming his/her way.  I found it definitely put me in a new "learning mode" as I tried to navigate the appropriate closeness and distance with my child. It is a key part of figuring out the next phase of parenting -- parenting an emerging young adult.

During this parental closeness-and-distance learning mode, I recommend keeping alert to one's own feelings and needs. We need to take care of ourselves if we're aching. While it is not our child's job to resolve our feelings of loss/grief in their absence, I found it possible to ask for reasonable connections.  For example, I learned when sending our oldest daughter to Bluffton (300 miles from home), that for the first couple of weeks of the year I would do best if there were quick, very brief, daily emails (now it would be texts), at their convenience (which meant late night sometimes), just to let me know how things were going.  I could promise her, and both of the other children when I later requested this of them too (yes there was eye-rolling from this request), that this was a temporary request and it wouldn't last but a couple of weeks.  I stuck to that promise.

We also aimed to speak by phone about once a week, which gave me a chance to hear in their voice – you know how it is for parents – "how" they really were doing. Beyond that, it remained my job to deal with my adjustment to (and grief from) their being gone.

It is very OK to recognize our own needs in this adjustment phase and to take care of ourselves. It is a big job coming to terms with less physical closeness and greater emotional distance while our child's world is expanding at college. It is a tender time, so be gentle with yourself.

It can seem crazy at times, so give yourself and your child grace. And like any other new dance, it will feel awkward at first. However, with time and practice comes familiarity, and the dance does get easier. And then, before we know it, that dance becomes a walk across the platform, to receiving a well-earned diploma!  

And, to our credit, it isn't just our child who has done all the learning.