Leaving for UniversityHow to Let Go when your child leaves for University? You have spent the last 18 years raising your child only to have to let them go. But, isn’t that the whole point of parenting? To let them go and lead an independent life, carving out their own version of happiness and success? If you have a child who recently completed matric and is going away to university, you are going to have to let go a whole lot more!

There is so much excitement and preparation for this next step on their journey towards maturity and living in the adult world. Leaving the security of home and family for months at a time is a huge leap for everyone – parents and their school leavers alike. This is when you get to see how independent, resourceful and resilient your children really are.

Questions running through your mind

  • What are their personal organisation skills like?
  • Can they sort their lives out without you running interference?
  • Will they cope without someone doing their washing and ironing for them?
  • Will they be able to manage their budget and still have money at the end of the month for groceries?
  • Will they cope with cooking their own food if they are not in a hostel?
  • What if they don’t like their roommate?
  • Will they actually attend lectures and study for tests and exams?
  • Will they drink too much?
  • Will they party too hard and study too little?
  • Will they keep their room clean?
  • Will they pass?

The only way to get any answers to these questions is to let them go and see what happens. You will probably go shopping with them, set them up in their room and help them to make a ‘new home’. You will queue with them on registration day, pay the necessary deposits and sign contracts, attend the parent orientation event, walk around the campus and even the town they will be living in. You will get a feel for where they are going to be, but then, you must leave. Yes, walk away, and trust that you have prepared them well enough to cope on their own.

What to expect in the first few weeks

I can tell you from experience that the first few weeks are about:

  • Partying, socialising and connecting with old friends and making new friends
  • Physically orientating themselves in their new environment
  • Getting settled in their new room in res – their first taste of independent living
  • Deciding whether they will or will not make their bed every morning – you are not there to see
  • For many, they will be discovering how much sleep deprivation they can cope with
  • Your child will probably drink alcohol – maybe a fair bit and they will be working out their limits
  • Buying their textbooks and necessary stationery – all by themselves
  • Covering their textbooks (some very expensive ones) – all by themselves
  • Spending a lot of your money – make sure you have drawn up a budget for their allowance with them
  • Learning how to clean their own toilet
  • Experiencing what happens when they run out of money

You are no longer the center of their world

So here is the thing:

No news is usually good news – your young adult may not want to call you every day to check-in. I would want to hear from them at least once a week, but don’t hound them with phone calls and Whatsapps daily or you will be sending a message that you don’t think they can cope.

Try not to worry unduly about them – it will get you nowhere but closer to creating an ulcer! If something goes wrong, worry. Most of the time, it won’t.

I promise they will call you when they:

  • Run out of money
  • Run out of data
  • Run out of airtime
  • Need a recipe
  • Don’t know how to use the washing machine
  • Can’t remember how long to cook spaghetti for
  • Have a broken friendship or a broken heart
  • Have issues with their transport

How best to support your child

Create an agreement with them ahead of time detailing:

  • Your wishes for them while they are studying away from home
  • Your responsibilities and commitment
  • Their responsibilities and commitment
  • What you will pay for
  • What they will have to pay for out of their allowance that you give them
  • What extras they may need to fund that may require creating some form of income like getting a job or selling their services online (research, writing essays, design work, creating Powerpoint presentations, editing videos are some examples), fetching and carrying children from school, au pairing, tutoring, house sitting, waitressing or being a bartender, coaching sport at a school, etc
  • What will happen if they lose a cellphone or it is stolen
  • What to do in the event of a car accident (whether they are a driver or a passenger) – the details they need to gather, how to get a police case number for insurance claims, etc – this is adult stuff they need to know to live in an adult world

In any situation when they approach you with for help:

  • First ask, “What do you think you should do?”
  • Try and support them to solve their problems and challenges themselves – it will speed up their journey to independence and reduce their dependence on you
  • Keep passing over the baton of responsibility to them.

Be clear or you will land up rescuing them, again and again:

  • Clarity is important when it comes to passing on responsibility
  • So is sticking to your agreements
  • The agreement you have drawn up above will cover things like running out of data, budgeting for groceries, what will happen if they fail a subject (will they have to pay for it next time around?) etc
  • After a couple of months you will have a better idea if the budget you created was realistic or not – I had to raise what I was giving to my son a little at one stage but, on the whole, he has managed well
  • The best teacher, of course, is their own experience
  • Having to live with the consequences of their own actions and choices, is about learning to take responsibility for their own lives
  • If you keep stepping in, they learn nothing because you will always be there to step in and help them.

Keep yourself busy over this time so that you don’t have too much time to think.

Keep growing yourself and take responsibility for your own happiness.

Letting go to let them grow

Somewhere around mid-March is all fall downtime when the fun tapers off a bit and the reality of university life and being away from home kicks in. They start to miss the Sunday family braai or roast; they miss the luxury of living at home and being cared for, and they might even get a bit homesick. I have watched mothers fly to their children’s sides at this time to get them over the hump, listened to parents talking their children through this dip over the phone, while others cope quite okay.

They all get through it to the other side because they are more capable and resilient than you think. Varsity life will not always be a bed of roses. Neither is life. It will have its ups and downs and twists in the road. You need to hold your line and believe in your young adult. The boundaries and limits set out in your agreement also help to set mutual expectations as well as providing a feeling of safety and security.

Your children need you to hold the space for them to grow up into. It’s time to start walking behind them, not in front of them or next to them. You have to let go to let them grow while still holding them accountable for their choices and actions. No-one said parenting was easy, and lovingly letting them go is often the hardest part of all. But, you can do it and, you must. Your child is on their way to becoming more of who they are outside of the rigid system of school. Watch them unfold with fascination as they take hops away from the nest.


Human Potential and Parenting Expert, speaker and author

Helping you win at work and life with the following resources:

PS. You may want to read my book Future-proof Your Child for the 2020s and beyond (Penguin Random House, 2019)

PPS. You or your school leaver may benefit from a Success Cube consultation to map their Success Journey moving forward

PPPS. You may want a presentation of my popular talk, Let Go and Let Grow at your child’s primary school, if you have children that young, because preparing to for independent, resourceful living starts in the early years, not the week they leave for university