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'90s FAMILY : Separation Anxiety : Few partings are easy. But when a child heads to camp or college even secure parents can experience a special kind of stress.

August 03, 1994|SUSAN JAQUES | Special to The Times

Twenty years as a camp director did not prepare Robin Sprague for this summer's "Maalox moment" when she hand-delivered her 10-year-old daughter, Lindsay, to sleep-away camp in Colorado.

"Two other sets of parents had come and gone and I was still there," confessed the Arizona mother of three. Having run out of clothes to unpack and counselors to introduce, Sprague finally left, saying: "Honey, I don't think you want me here at dinner time."

Lindsay Sprague is among an estimated 1 million children packing duffel bags this summer for sleep-away camp. A few weeks later, 1 million or so teen-agers will collect their worldly goods and leave home for their freshman year of college. These are proud moments for parents, marking their children's growing independence and maturity. Why then do many parents feel like riding along on the camp bus or moving into their kid's freshman dorm?

"It's normal for a parent to feel some degree of anxiety in sending a child away, especially with the increased concern these days about child abuse," said Becca Cowen Johnson, a Bellingham, Wash., psychologist who counsels camp-bound children.

"But for some parents, sending a child to camp can elicit the same responses as that traumatic first day of kindergarten. Parents who want their kids to miss them are relying on their children too much."

Parents of late-summer campers need to be aware that post-camp blues are common. "All of a sudden, children are back home without their friends and the (college-aged) counselors who became their heroes," said Orange County camp consultant Cheri Evans. "It's a wonderful time for parents to encourage their children to communicate about their experiences and to discuss whether they want to consider camp for the next year."

Although Sprague knows that camp will be a growing experience for her daughter and an opportunity to spend more time with her younger children, she still worries. "What if it starts lightning when Lindsay is on a hike? Will she know what to do?" Sprague wondered. Adding to Sprague's anxiety is the need to communicate the worsening health of Lindsay's grandmother.

Illness and loss of grandparents sometimes coincide with camp and college separations, and they play a role in the emotions parents experience. "When children leave home, parents can suddenly feel abandoned and very much alone from above and below," said psychiatrist Mark Goulston, president of the Direct Conflict Resolution Group in Santa Monica.

Goulston said even the most secure parents are tempted to relive their youth through their children--in effect getting a second scoop of ice cream. But parents can carry this too far and become overly dependent. "Spouses can be so invested in their kids that they forget to talk to each other," Goulston said. "If we haven't stayed current in our involvement with our mate, we can feel a shyness and a loss of intimacy when left alone with our husband or wife."

College brings a realization that the family is never going to be quite the same. "Waves of different emotions go over me," said Linda Mack of Manhattan Beach, whose older daughter, Laura, leaves for UC Berkeley this month. "It's like the beginning of the end of our family--as it was. Most likely, Laura will be back at Christmas, but who knows about next summer? She won't be a permanent resident here anymore."

The Macks had a college warm-up when Laura traveled to Eastern Europe as an exchange student before her junior year at Mira Costa High School. Linda Mack remembers feeling a little bit of emptiness, tempered by the knowledge that her daughter was coming back. "Laura couldn't wait to get out on her own," Mack recalled, "but she hadn't reached New York before she was calling us."

Freshman year can also be hard on younger brothers and sisters--so much so that many colleges encourage close siblings to visit. "Laura's sister is already making plans to take over the bathroom," Mack said. "But it's going to hit her. She doesn't yet realize how much they will miss each other."

Sometimes parents make the college transition very smoothly--even experiencing a sense of liberation. Last fall, Joel Bernstein of Tarzana filled up two cars with "everything under the sun" and drove daughter Julia to UC Santa Barbara for her freshman year. "It's a release on life," said the attorney and marathon runner. "I run further and faster now than I ever have."

Each time a child separates--whether it's for kindergarten, sleep-away camp, college or marriage--parents can expect to feel a mixture of relief and sadness. Adjust and let go, experts say. And in the process, try to resist turning your kid's room into a mausoleum.

"Don't take what feels like a personal loss personally," Goulston said. "Suck back the tears and don't make your child feel guilty. In the next several years, your child will relate to you as a friend and gravitate toward you because he or she enjoys your company."

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