Dr. Elaine Heffner: Leaving home

Dr. Elaine Heffner
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Plaquemine Post South

With the new year, high school students are entering a new semester and for upper-classmen thoughts of the impending applications for, and decisions about college. For some there may also be visits and tours of various college sites, adding a note of reality to the process.

Some students to whom I have spoken, look forward eagerly to entering a wider world and what appears to them to be greater independence from parents and early school years. Others express attachment to their school years and communities, and feel a pang or two in anticipation of leaving.

Numerous parents, however, have talked to me about their sadness and anxiety about the impending separation from, and departure of their children. Although pleased that their children are doing well and moving forward in life, the sadness comes from endings, the endings of childhood and one’s life as the parents of young children.

I remember once telling my younger son a reminiscence from earlier years. He said, “maybe I wished they would not grow up.” I told him that I was pleased with who they were currently but also missed those people they used to be.

Such feelings account for some of the sadness. But the anxiety reported is something else. What I have heard from many mothers in particular, especially those with college freshmen, is worry that there is no one available with responsibility for their child. If anything was wrong, who would know about it? If the child needed help who would be there to provide it? How is a parent to know if everything is alright?

This concern seemed to echo the current commentary on the degree to which parents use cell phones to keep track of their children and their movements. This has been part of the fall-out from two working parents with no means of supervision of their children’s after school activities. This kind of monitoring has also involved children themselves having cell phones at young ages and participating in the monitoring that is taking place. When children are away at school there is some resistance to this kind of monitoring and parents are aware of the pushback.

In many ways this is a replay of the early struggle over separation in the preschool years. Two-year-old’s becoming more aware that they are separate people from their parents, become assertive in expressing a sense of independence, often to the consternation of parents who recognize that children seek to do things themselves that are often beyond their still developing skills.

For parents, the challenge is to support the young child’s emerging independence while intervening to provide the protection that is still needed. When this struggle is replayed in adolescence or young adulthood, the challenge to parents is greater as children now have greater skills and may assert themselves in ways less available to parental intervention. Yet the task remains the same, namely gaging the abilities of the young person and providing support when possible.

From the moment of a child’s birth, mothers feel a particular responsibility for ensuring the survival and well-being of her infant. That feeling of responsibility is a hallmark of parenthood, which may not diminish as the child grows and is able to assume more responsibility for his own well-being. It also may not diminish when a child leaves home and is no longer under the protective surveillance of parents.

Leaving home is a major step on the path to independence. It is not surprising that all the feelings about separation on the part of both parents and children are replayed when children go off to school.

Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine,, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at