How well will you cope with the sting of saying goodbye?

The first “letting go” is usually that tearful preschool or kindergarten goodbye. Fast-forward 12 or so years and now you're saying goodbye to a college freshman.

Karen Levin Coburn, author of “Letting Go,”describes the transition to college as a “mixture of anticipation and anxiety, a sense of loneliness and freedom, fantasy and reality.”

Are our parenting days really over? For most families the answer is no, but there is unquestionably an adjustment phase. It seems like everything changes, from concrete items such as fewer groceries, less laundry and less noise to subtle effects on siblings, a refocus on the marriage and coping with an emptier nest.

Parents' reactions

Birth order has a lot to do with how parents handle saying goodbye. In my own experience as a middle child, I felt slightly overshadowed. My brother, three years older, was teasingly referred to as “Jesus Jimmy” because he could do no wrong in our home. My mother, my father, my sister and I were devastated when the U-Haul pulled away. By the time my turn came, my parents were accustomed to saying goodbye and there were few, if any, tears. But my sister was the baby, and her departure clearly signaled the end of an era.

It's smart to prepare mentally for the loss. If you think of your home life as a stock portfolio, the byword is always to diversify.

You certainly want to invest in your children, but it makes sense to have a variety of other interests. For many mothers, that means planning for the adjustment and re-establishing themselves in the workforce years earlier. Dads are often surprised at their reactions. One dad in Levin's book wrote, “Knowing that my little girl is leaving home makes me feel that any past control I had as a dad is now slipping through my fingers. I realize that once she is away, it will never be the same in our household again.”

The good news is that for most families, anticipating the departure is far more stressful than actually dealing with the student's being away.

Students' reactions

Most students are ready and eager to leave. They're excited about meeting new people, sharing new experiences and, oh yes, learning new things. Once the dorm room is set up, freshmen typically want to say goodbye and become ensconced in their new lives. Often their demeanor becomes cooler as they try to distance themselves from their family. Part of it is defensive, since they may be afraid the first tear will unleash a waterfall.

Letting go can be hard. But this too will pass.