Dealing with anxiety about leaving your family

I just finished a course about counseling first-generation college students, and it was fascinating. One of the biggest surprises for me was the idea that many first-generation students (that is, students whose parents did not go to college) experience "achievement guilt" for moving beyond their family in terms of education, and many first-generation students have anxiety that they area abandoning their family by going off to college.

Rebecca Covarrubias, from the University of Delaware, and Stephanie A. Fryberg, from the University of Washington, conducted two studies to see how "survivor guilt" plays out for first-generation students who may feel like they're leaving their family behind when they go on to achieve more academic success than their parents. (**A full citation of the study is at the bottom.)

In the first study, they found that first-generation college students report feeling "family achievement guilt" 34% more than continuing-generation college students. The guilt and anxiety that can come from attaining more education than your parents is real and substantial. In the second study they worked with the results of the first and added to them. They found that, unsurprisingly, the more a student perceives that their family is struggling, the more guilt the student feels. However, they also found that having the students reflect on a time they helped a family member with a problem significantly reduced the feeling of guilt. 

So: first-gen students feel guilt and anxiety about going to college much more often than students who are not first-gen; the more the student's family is struggling financially or socially, the more guilt they feel; thinking about how they are helpful to the family helps reduce the guilt and anxiety.

Whether or not you're the first in your family to go to college, whether or not you feel a strong family achievement guilt, you're probably experiencing some level of anxiety about leaving home and your family for college. Even if you live at home, you're still entering a new world and new ways of interacting with your family. There are some strategies that anyone can use to help ease the transition.

The first is to integrate your family into the transition as much as possible. As much as you may want them to just drop you off at school and go away quickly, it's better to do it a little more slowly. Walk around campus with them, show them the buildings where your first-semester classes will be, let them be able to imagine what a day for you looks like. That way you have a shared set of images and expectations that you all can draw on.

As unpleasant as this sounds, it's also a really good idea to talk to your family about their hopes, dreams, and fears for you as you move on. Listen to them, and also share your own hopes, goals, and fears. In any relationship, communicating is really important. If you're going to stop seeing your family on a day-to-day basis, then you're changing the way you'll communicate. Get off to a good start.

If you're anxious about how your family will do without you, then try the method used in the study. Sit down and think about--even better, write about--a time you were useful and helpful to your family. This may have to do with parents, or younger siblings, or extended family. Remember that it's part of who you are to be helpful, not just your proximity to the family. Think about ways that you'll continue to be a part of the family, and think about ways you can help even more with college experience.

Every student, regardless of their family situation, should know where the school's counseling services can be found, and nobody should be afraid to take advantage.

Lastly, plan your first visit home before you leave. Have a date on your calendar, and do as much logistically planning as possible ahead of time. Having some concrete plans can do a lot to alleviate the stress and discomfort you may be feeling.

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**Covarrubias, Rebecca and Stephanie A. Fryberg. "Movin’ on up (to College): First-Generation College Students’ Experiences With Family Achievement Guilt." Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 21.3 (2015). 420-29.