She’s Leaving Home (Bye, Bye):
Understanding Parent’s Reactions to the College Transition Through the Lens of Attachment Theory
Daniel J. Sonkin, PhD
The Therapist • January/February 2010
This fall millions of children left home for the first time to attend college. This transition, from the young adult’s point of view, is both exciting and frightening. For many young people they are spreading their wings for the first time, and although some may falter and return home during the first year, for most, this time will be a major step in their ongoing developmental transition from adolescence to adulthood. And while the young people are enjoying their new social experiences and world of educational possibilities, their parents are simultaneously experiencing a transition of their own, especially if their only or last child is the one who left home. This is what happened for our family this summer—our only child left home. Although we were prepared intellectually for the change, the actual impact and significance of the move has turned out to be much greater than I originally anticipated.
Both of us being mental health professionals, my wife and I were certainly intellectually prepared for this transition. But knowing something academically, and knowing it emotionally are two different things. It hit us like a ton of bricks, when we realized our little girl was spreading her wings. And indeed she has. I have told clients going through this transition, when your kids do spread their wings and successfully take flight, you know that you have done something right. So even as she had her own feelings of fear, our little girl took off with the enthusiasm of a bird’s first solo flight. And although we felt a great relief and joy in bearing witness to her excitement and success, it didn’t erase the feelings of deep sadness and loss we parental-units (as our daughter so fondly referred to us at times) were left with in the wake of her departure.
For many parents, having what one of my sisters calls a “spare” at home, can sometimes mitigate the powerful impact a child leaving may have on his/her parents. When there are still other babes in the nest to attend to, the parents still have a job to do. But when it’s the only child who leaves, or the last, the parent is not only dealing with the loss of that particular child, but also the loss of a career to some extent. Like many single-child families, the child may be the entire focus of his/her caregivers—and for better or worse, that loss of attention can be quite destabilizing for both the child and the parents.
For the past eighteen years, we would kiss our daughter goodnight and wake her with a gentle kiss on the top of her head. Even as a senior in high school, we discussed with her the idea, in preparation for college, of waking herself up in the mornings. She reassuringly replied, “I know how to wake myself up in the morning; I just like when you do it.” Having recalled something the nurse told us when she was born (You can’t hug her enough, hold her enough or tell her that you love her enough, because before you know it, all you're going to see is the back of her head), we decided that we’d wake her up every morning. But in spite of the fact that we tried to appreciate the moment, and even knowing that it would change abruptly one day, this summer we went from a three-some to a two-some as quickly as we went from a two-some to a three-some eighteen years ago and it was, and still has been a very radical change in our day to day existence.
The transition to college like any other loss, involves experiencing painful emotions and a reorganization of one’s life structure. To complicate matters, when we experience loss in the present, it is possible that we will also experience memories of other significant losses from the past. However, the transition to college is unique in some ways, so the emotional reactions may not follow the typical trajectory that other losses (especially more permanent losses) may involve. For example, the transition to college is certainly not permanent. On the contrary, many children will return home for short periods of time before becoming fully launched. Additionally, some view the transition to college as a balancing act, encouraging the child to spread his/her wings while at the same time maintaining his/her roots to family (see Karp, et. al, 2004). This is not always an easy balance to achieve for parents or children. So it is a loss in some ways, but a transformation of the relationship in other ways. The move to college is also part of a larger life phase, the transition from adolescence to adulthood, so it requires a significant change in the way parents parent their child. Finally, when children do come home for visits, the parents get to experience something reminiscent of the past but with a person more likely to be grounded in a new state of maturity and development. This tension creates a challenge for the parents to practice letting go, over and over again.
Attachment theory is an ideal lens through which to view this transition. Attachment theory helps us understand how people survive temporary bouts of pain, discomfort, doubts, and distress and what helps them re-establish hope, optimism and emotional equanimity. And it also is a theory that helps us understand how people manage separation within the context of attachment relationships. Because attachment is important to human functioning, as its orignator British psychiatrist John Bowlby stated, "from cradle to grave", understanding the transition to college through this lens can shed light on not only how one initially reacts to this separation, but also how to regain emotional equilibrium throughout the process of the transition.
In this article, I will present an overview of attachment theory, and how it can be applied to the transition to college from the parent’s perspective. First I will present an overview of attachment theory. Then I will talk about the college transition, secure and insecure responses to separation and loss, and finally, I will discuss the clinical implications of the theory and how therapists can help their clients weather this transition in the most adaptive way possible.
Attachment Theory: An Overview
John Bowlby’s work on attachment theory began when he observed the effects of disruptions in maternal bonds in his work with delinquent boys (see Bowlby, 1989). He believed that these disruptions were precursors to psychopathology. Bowlby viewed attachment through the lens of evolution and ethology. Attachment behaviors are important because they increase the likelihood of offspring protection and provide a survival advantage. He coined the term “attachment behavioral system,” borrowing the concept of behavioral systems from ethology, which is in essence an innate motivational drive that insures protection and survival. Bowlby believed, and it’s been proven empirically since (see Cassidy and Shaver, 2008), that all children become attached whether they are fed or not by a particular caregiver. In fact, children will even become attached to abusive caregivers. Because the child is motivated by a desire to seek proximity to a stronger and wiser caretaker, the attachment behavioral system is responsive to the types of interactions it experiences in reality – not fantasy. Because the system responds to the caretaking environment the results are different attachment patterns. Therefore, it is not whether or not a child becomes attached (a misconception of the therapy by many people), but the quality of that attachment. The interactions the infant has with it’s caregiver contributes to the creation of generalize templates or implicit procedural memories that form the basis of “the how” of interactions with others. And as the child matures and expands his/her interactions, those templates are applied to other attachment figures in life.
Attachment theory is both about emotions and cognitions. When an infant feels emotional distress, proximity to his/her caretaker becomes the means to reduce emotional distress. Likewise, the experiences the infant has through attachment relationships also create the building blocks of representations of self and others (Am I the kind of person people will respond to? Are others likely to respond to my needs?). Because the attachment behavioral system is complimentary to the caregiving system of the parent, it is logical that there would be individual differences in how emotions and belief systems about relationships are regulated based on how the parents respond to the child’s attachment behaviors. Secure attachment patterns manifest adaptive affect regulation strategies when the child has a mental representation of the attachment figure being present, attentive, and responsive when needed. Insecurely attached children lack such a representation and therefore manifest maladaptive affect regulation patterns. Depending on the response patterns of the caregiver when the attachment behavioral system of the child is activated (wanting proximity), you will see different patterns of insecure attachment. When this occurs, we see patterns of attachment that result in either a hyperactivation of the attachment behavioral system or deactivation of the attachment behavioral system.
One of the most important elements of attachment theory is how human beings deal with loss and separation from their attachment figures. Common reactions include sadness, fear and anger. Because attachment theory is in part a theory of affect regulation, individuals with secure affect will regulate those emotions differently than individuals with insecure states of mind. Individuals with secure states of mind are likely to be aware of these emotions, label the emotions, modulate them adaptively, represent or communicate them through language and soothe them adaptively either dyadically (with others) or alone (self-soothing). Secure individuals are not immune from the windstorms of life, but they do seem to weather them more smoothly than those with insecure states of mind. Individuals with insecure attachment are likely to have problems in one or more of these steps in the affect regulation process. And because they lack the actual experience of a secure resolution of the attachment behavioral system response, insecurely attached individuals may feel that neither dyadic soothing or self-soothing are viable options.
Transition to College
Transitions or passages involve the act of passing from one state or place to another. Certainly the transition to college aptly fits this definition, in that not only is there often literally a change in place (moving to college), but there is certainly a change in state (a change in the state of the relationship with parents). Transitions are a process, and not an event, although an event may trigger the start or end of a transition. Transitions often start with a disintegration or subtle change in state that gradually builds toward a period of betwixt and between or disorganization, and eventually towards a new state or reorganization. And, although some transitions occur over a relatively short period of time, others develop and change over the course of many years. As mentioned earlier, the transition to college may be viewed as part of a larger task of adolescence and the transition to adulthood, which may certainly entail a long process that begins early in adolescence and ends early in adulthood.
Common emotional reactions individuals have with regard to separation and loss are sadness, fear, anger, and loneliness. Although some parents also report a sense of relief (“I don’t have to worry about him/her driving the car” or “Not knowing where he/she is at night is a blessing”) and happiness (“I am happy for his/her success and excitement”), experiencing some degree of loss is not only normal, but should be expected. But how parents regulate these emotions will be related to attachment status. Other factors that impact the process include: distance and communication issues, quality of relationship prior to the transition; affective communication patterns, capacity for flexibility and change, the child’s emotional and academic needs, the parents’ social, creative and occupational lives, the quality of the marital relationship, the ability of the parents to spread their wings, while maintaing their roots to each other and their child.
From an attachment perspective, how parents manage the transition to college can be, in part, predicted by attachment status, because like most transitions, the college transition is fraught with emotion. Attachment theory helps us understand how we manage emotion. But attachment theory is also a theory of cognition in that it refers to working models of close relationships and how the self and others are experienced. As mentioned earlier, the attachment behavioral system of the child is complimented by the caregiving system of the caregivers. From birth on the function of the caretaking system is to provide protection, comfort and care for the child. This is complementary to the attachment system of the child, which seeks protection and proximate care from the attachment figure. The behavioral manifestations of caregiving change over the development of the child. And during adolescence and the transition to adulthood (and college), the caregiving system continues, but changes radically.
Just as the attachment behavioral system of the child may be activated by internal or external cues (such as the fear of leaving home or the actual process of it), so too is the caregiving system of the parents. Parents frequently worry about how their child will manage in college, whether it’s worry about social relationships, educational tasks, or just the day-to-day management of life. These thoughts can include perceived danger toward the child, which may trigger feelings of fear and a desire to protect. The actual separation can obviously also trigger intense feelings of loss, which the parent may regulate in adaptive or maladaptive ways. Because this transition often involves physical separation for long periods of time, it can result in a chronic activation of the parent’s caregiving or their own attachment behavioral systems. This is why it’s not uncommon for marriages to fall apart during the empty nest process—one or both of the parents is needing caretaking themselves and either doesn’t know how to seek it out, provide it for the other, or both. And, of course, not only do parents need to manage these intense feelings of loss, but also the transition requires learning new ways of relating to their child—such as finding a balance between giving greater autonomy, while at the same time staying connected —not an easy balance to achieve for most parents.
How May Attachment Status Predict How People Weather the Transition?
Secure adults have mastered the complexities of close relationships sufficiently well to allow them to balance autonomy with connectedness. They tend to view themselves and others through a benign lens and so even when their attachment figure is insensitive or rejecting, they don’t feel a need to protect themselves and will easily forgive transgressions. They are good at communicating feelings, they are flexible in changing parenting roles and patterns, they tend to turn towards a partner or other adult for comfort (not the child), they are attuned to the children’s needs for autonomy, and they maintain the connection in spite of the decreasing proximity needs of child. When securely attached people enter therapy for this transition, it may be because they don’t have a partner who they can turn to for caretaking or who will help them understand their reactions and how to manage them within the context of their relationship with their child. It may also be because they may need some help understanding their reactions or simply some feedback that what they are experiencing is “normal.” But, regardless of the reason for the initiation of therapy, securely attached individuals are generally comfortable seeking help from therapists and committing to the process.
Insecure adults, because of their history of not getting emotional needs met in close relationships, have problems with self-worth and trusting others and therefore may have difficulty developing a positive therapeutic alliance. They haven’t developed flexible responses to emotional stress and therefore often get stuck in either hyperactivation (preoccupied attachment) or deactivation (dismissing attachment) modes. Preoccupied attachment results from an unreliable caretaking environment in childhood. The infant has difficulty holding on to or keeping track of a parent that is not sufficiently near, attentive or responsive, and as a result experiences high levels of anger and frustration that are not easily soothed. As the child grows older, he/she tries to hold onto close relationships, but does it in ways that frequently backfire and ultimately reinforce negative beliefs about self and others. During the transition to college, he/she may get angry in response to loss, need caretaking by the child, or evoke feelings of guilt in the child for leaving.
Likewise, deactivation of the attachment/caregiving system results from early experiences with a caregiver who consistently didn’t provide contact, comfort, or soothe distress, and as a result the child developed defensive self-reliance. As the child matures, this defensive deactivation of attachment needs may result in cool, hostile, or distant relations with others. During the transition to college, dismissing individuals are likely to play down the need for connection, over-emphasize independence and self-sufficiency, and may inadvertently give the child the message that he/she is on his/her own. The key difficulty with either form of insecure attachment is that the emotion dysregulation that accompanies hyperactivating or deactivating responses to separation and loss, results in a compromised reflective function. It is reflective function that allows for response flexibility and emotional sensitivity —both necessary for a smooth transition.
English psychoanalyst and attachment researcher, Peter Fonagy use the term reflective function in referring to the human capacity to envision mental states in oneself and another, and to understand one’s own and another’s behaviors in terms of underlying mental states and intentions (see Fonagy et. al. 2002). Reflective function is both an emotional and cognitive construct that is intrinsic to healthy affect regulation and productive social relationships. It is emotional in that it refers to the ability to recognize one’s own emotional reactions, as well as those in others. It is cognitive in that it involves understanding the intentions and underlying causes of reaction in the self and in others. Reflective function allows one to understand that one’s own and others’ behaviors are linked in meaningful, predictable ways to underlying, and often unobservable, feelings and intentions. The more a person is able to envision mental states in themselves and others (and know the difference), the more likely the person is to experience relationships as productive, intimate, and satisfying. They are able to subjectively feel connected while feeling separate—an important goal of the transition to college.
Attachment researchers also talk about concepts such as meta-cognition, coherence of a narrative and reflective function, which refer to higher order thinking processes that are common in people with secure attachment. What these concepts all have in common is that they suggest that the mind of the individual is operating in an integrative fashion, where thought, feeling, and behavior are in balance; where there is flexibility between autonomy and dependency; where there is a more benign, but realistic; view of the self and others; and where consciousness is used to bring the organism back from disequilibrium. So the road to developing a reflective function is complicated and requires many different neural functions to work together in harmony.
Strengthening Reflective Function
Stress is the enemy of reflective function. When anxiety gets high, we move into survival mode where nuance is not appreciated. The transition to college can be stressful for all adults—secure and insecure. However, insecure adults are more likely to have difficulty reestablishing emotional/cognitive/behavioral balance and equanimity. The first step in developing the reflective function is moving from showing distress to talking about the experience of distress. Dr. Mary Main, who developed the Adult Attachment Interview (see Main and Goldwyn, 1993), says, “Insecure individuals show their feelings, whereas secure individuals talk about them.” Therefore, developing a strong reflective function will necessarily involve talking about the experience of the transition —the thoughts and feelings evoked by the process.
The second part of this reflective function process is to understand the reasons for the emotional reactions. Of course, feelings of loss are understandable and expected during the transition to college, however, why a person may feel as intensely or particular types of emotions may also be related to earlier experiences with loss, unresolved grief, and trauma. For example, some degree of anger might be expected when a child leaves home, however, a person with preoccupied attachment will feel intense anger that overshadows other more vulnerable emotions, such as sadness and disappointment. Likewise, a dismissing individual, who isn’t aware of feeling any loss, may be able to attribute this lack of feeling to earlier reactions of caregivers to his or her emotional needs. Reflective function includes an awareness of how the past contributes to reactions in the present. This process is also referred to as autonoetic consciousness–the linking of past, present, and future.
Another important characteristic of a reflective function is the ability to not only experience and understand one’s own internal mental states, but also those of others. So imagining what their child is experiencing (for example, a combination of excitement and some apprehension) may help the person put into an emotional context the behavior of his/her child during the transition. This capacity is related to the cognitive neurological processes of social cognition and theory of mind. Insecure adults, depending on their attachment status, will either not consider other people’s minds, deny that others have feelings or confuse their minds for others. Behaviorally, they may look to their child for soothing and reassurance, or they may be oblivious to their child’s emotional states or needs altogether. People with secure attachment do not ordinarily confuse their minds with the minds of others. They are aware that others may not feel the same as them. Additionally, they are aware that sometimes behavior belies mental states, that the same behaviors may have different meaning to different people, and that mental states and behaviors may change over time. Insecure individuals lack these meta-cognitive skills. An important part of the psychotherapy process is helping insecure clients develop these meta-cognitive abilities. By doing so you are strengthening social cognition skills, empathy, and mentalizing abilities.
Attachment theory is an excellent lens through which to understand the transition to college from the parents’ perspective. The characteristics of secure attachment –adaptive affect regulation strategies, positive working models of self and others and reflective function–can all make this difficult transition less disruptive to not only the parent-child bond, but also the parent-parent bond. Understanding your client’s attachment status can help the therapist plan interventions geared toward helping the client recognize maladaptive strategies and to learn more adaptive strategies involving reflective function.
Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Clinical applications of attachment theory. London: Routledge.
Cassidy J. & P. R. Shaver (Eds.)(1999, rev. 2008), Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications. New York: Guilford Press.
Fonagy, P.; Target, M.; Gergely, G. and Jurist, E.J. (2002) Affect Regulation, Mentalization and the Development of the Self. New York: Other Press.
Karp, D.A.; Holmstrom, L.L. and Gray, P.S. (2004). Of Roots and Wings: Letting Go of the College-Bound Child. Symbolic Interaction. Summer, Vol. 27, No. 3, Pages 357–382.
Main M., Goldwyn R. (1993). Adult Attachment Classification System. Unpublished manuscript, University of California, Berkeley.