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Starting college is a transition for parents too. ‘I got in his bed and I just cried.’

The pandemic has amplified those emotions for many bringing students to college campuses this year, particularly if their child has struggled with anxiety and depression in the wake of COVID.

Jessie Colbert, 19, moves into her dorm for her freshman year at Sweet Briar College in rural Virginia, roughly 300 miles from her Philadelphia home.
Jessie Colbert, 19, moves into her dorm for her freshman year at Sweet Briar College in rural Virginia, roughly 300 miles from her Philadelphia home.Read moreCourtesy of Debra Colbert

Jyothi Alamanda’s body knots with cramps when she thinks about how her daughter is coping off on her own in college with severe anxiety that started during her sophomore year of high school, at the height of COVID-19.

As dorm move-in day approached earlier this month, the first-time college student grew increasingly distressed and teary. That triggered Alamanda’s own fear. Her daughter’s angst didn’t abate when the 2020 lockdowns ended and students returned to in-person learning last year. It deepened. Through junior and senior years, her daughter struggled to maintain friendships, and spent more and more time at home.

To calm her own nerves, the 53-year-old mother, who moved to South Jersey from India in 2009, started practicing yoga daily and reading spiritual books, especially Talks on the Gita by Vinoba Bhave. But when her daughter asked if she was nervous for her departure, Alamanda lied. “Only a little bit,” she told her.

“When she cries, I also cry. Not in front of her,” Alamanda said.

» READ MORE: How to cope with the stress of sending a kid to college

Every August and September, scores of young adults leave home for college for the first time. It is a rite of passage — not just for the students, but also for many parents and guardians going through their own transition. For parents, a sense of trepidation, even loss, has long been normal as a child leaves the nest.

The pandemic has amplified those emotions for many taking students to college campuses this year, particularly if their child has struggled with anxiety and depression in the wake of COVID, therapists say.

In Philadelphia, where the pandemic coincided with a spike in gun violence, and a spasm of school shootings raised alarms around the nation, parents might feel even more on edge as their kids cast out on their own. And the stressors keep coming, from climbing inflation that has added to the financial stress of paying for college to the nation’s political polarization. Families of color are also sending children to a new environment at a time of heightened unrest over racial injustice.

» READ MORE: Talking about suicide on college campuses may help save a life

It is not just that goodbyes are harder after families spent more time together because of remote work and learning.

The pandemic fueled a mental health crisis among youth. A national survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than 40% of high school students reported “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” as the pandemic upended lives into mid-2021. About 20% “seriously considered attempting suicide” and 9% made an attempt.

“One crisis after another” is how some families now describe recent years, in which they could not prepare as normal for this major life transition, according to George James, a licensed marriage and family therapist and chief innovation officer at Council for Relationships, a Philadelphia mental health nonprofit.

He is seeing that parents and guardians are more anxious this year. “When a child goes off to college, it changes the family dynamic,” James said. “[It] forces parents to really think through where they are, and what they are doing in their lives.”

`Worried, anxious, hopefulness’

For Rob Santiago, the feeling that something shifted beneath his feet came a few days after he deposited his son Marcos at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, roughly 55 miles from their South Jersey home last month.

Normally even-keeled, Santiago found himself riddled with anxiety that first weekend.

“I had this worried, anxious hopefulness that he does well there,” Santiago said. The 53-year-old father said he struggled with expectations that he knew were unrealistic. “You want that to happen on day one, and it doesn’t. It’s a process.”

The pandemic stunted the social aspect of his son’s high school experience. That adds to Santiago’s wish that his son finds “his people” at college. “We felt like this was a little bit of a redo of sorts,” Santiago said.

» READ MORE: Furnishing your apartment on a college budget? Check out these Philly thrift stores.

The older of Santiago’s two boys, 18-year-old Marcos is his boisterous and talkative child. He chatted away during family meals. With Marcos’ departure changing family dynamics, Santiago said he hopes his 15-year-old son becomes more communicative.

“There is a stress and anxiety about what that looks like as well, like our relationship with our other son and our relationship as a married couple and what’s next for me,” Santiago said.

Santiago said he’s only half-joking when he says it would be good to have a support group for parents with kids, especially the first-born, away in college. The group could exchange ideas for curbing worry when you text your kid and he or she doesn’t text right back.

Over Labor Day weekend, the Santiagos went to Vermont. It was their first family vacation without Marcos. “I felt guilty about it,” Santiago said.

Letting go might not get easier in year two

Valori Zaslow’s son, Corey, her only child, just started his sophomore year at the University of Delaware. It wasn’t any easier to let go. This year, he’s living in an off-campus apartment, where he’s responsible for the lease, utilities, and household expenses.

“Now he’s more grown-up,” Zaslow said. “So that’s more things that I have anxiety about.”

The pandemic has brought its own financial worries for Zaslow, 55, who is divorced and living in Manayunk. Before COVID, she owned a kosher candy store and events planning business in Bala Cynwyd. She had to close both. She couldn’t pay the rent and employee salaries.

» READ MORE: Kids with autism are less likely to go to college. This freshman proved educators wrong.

Although her son’s father helps pay for college, she has been overwhelmed with stress: “How am I paying for four years of college?” Zaslow said.

She’s looking for work. She hosts a podcast called Jewish Singles Radio for fun but said she’s still figuring out how to “settle into” herself in a home that no longer revolves around her son.

She can vividly remember buying him his first shaving razor and taking him to the eye doctor for the contact lenses he wanted.

“He was just such a huge part of my life,” she said. “It’s a loss.”

When she packed him up that first year, it felt as if she were the one going to live in a dorm. She bought him a smaller version of the four-foot lava lamp that he had in his bedroom at home. “You have to have a lava lamp in your dorm room,” she pleaded with him. “He was like, ‘This is ridiculous.’” Still, she made him take it.

When she left him at college last August, she walked into his room at home. Her eyes swept over the stuffed animals they’d won on the Jersey Shore boardwalk, the collection of baseballs from all the games they went to, the Dr. Seuss books they read together. “I was looking at it and I was like, ‘My life is never going to be the same,’” she recalled. “I got in his bed and I just cried.”

After this year’s drop-off, she went to his room to look around again. This time, he had refused to take the lava lamp.

When getting a child out of Philly is a parental relief

Debra Colbert, who lives in the city’s Hunting Park neighborhood, said her daughter wanted to “break free of Philadelphia” and attend a school far away. Her daughter Jessie picked Sweet Briar College, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia and roughly 300 miles from the family’s home.

The 3,000-acre campus feels like a different planet to Colbert, who is relieved that she can stop worrying about Jessie getting shot on her way to school at a time of record gun violence in Philadelphia.

» READ MORE: Monkeypox is spreading as college students return to campuses. Some universities are still preparing.

“You’re in the wilderness and you hear birds and crickets, not police sirens and gun shots,” Colbert said. “But I didn’t realize how much it would hurt having her so far away.”

She cried for the first 100 miles of her return trip to Philadelphia after the final goodbye hug with Jessie in her freshman dorm room. “I had to keep dabbing my face mask to my eyes so I could see,” Colbert said.

Colbert’s mind unspooled as fast as the mountainous scenery: Did she remember to put Tylenol in her daughter’s first-aid kit? What about Band-Aids? Did she pack enough microwave popcorn or duck-flavored ramen noodles — her daughter’s favorite?

“There’s no more ‘Mom, can you do this for me? Mom, I’m sick, can you help me?’” Colbert said. “We have to let them figure things out. Even if they fail, it’s a lesson learned.”

She knows that she has to allow Jessie the opportunity to fail, which is new parenting stress: “We are a wreck.”