Life After an Older Sibling Goes Off to College

Stephanie Chase, MFT InternAuthor

Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.

With the buzz of graduation season already underway, families are beginning to contemplate the changes that are about to happen in their families. Much has been written about the effect this transition has on the parents and the adolescent leaving, but what do we know about the siblings who are left behind? In the months leading up to the launch, they experience the effects of the preparation consuming the lives of their parents and the college student-to-be. They may realize that the show isn’t about them, but they often wish they had more of a supporting role. They might begin to realize that their experience at home is about to change, and that their relationship with their older sibling is changing also.
Oftentimes, older siblings take on the role of a “superhero” or “go to guide” to offer insight and solutions into everyday life situations. Younger siblings typically experience a sense of loss of companionship, support, and/or activity level in the house (fewer guests, phone calls, sporting events to attend, etc.) when their older sib moves away. Changes in the family system can include a second child moving up to the position of the oldest child at home, or becoming only kid at home. With fewer children to divide the parents’ attention, the remaining ones can experience increased pressure. Perhaps their parents become more focused on their younger kids personal or academic lives, or perhaps they are struggling to cope with the changes themselves.
Symptoms that a left-behind sibling may be challenged by the transition can include: Irritability, loneliness, isolation, anger, denial, a drop in grades, avoidance of family members, and/or increased sibling rivalry.
Parents can help by reflecting on their parenting style to see if it has changed. They can evaluate if the change is in the best interest of their younger child or part of their own coping process. They can also talk openly about the changes, validate feelings, give extra space and time, and help sibs to understand the transition by having a clear plan for who will take up the responsibilities of the sib who has moved out. Parents can also encourage their college student to keep in touch with their younger siblings.
Sometimes, no matter how much parents prepare for or discuss the change, their younger children may still have a difficult time. This is a natural season to connect with a therapist and explore the transition and its effects. A therapist will help develop coping skills, increase family communication, process the loss and identify the positives in the new situation. For families, having a child leave the nest is an organic phase of life to move through. Having an understanding of what to expect and how to support the process is beneficial to all.