Depressed After Brother Leaves for College

A parent asks how to help her younger son deal with his brother going off to college.
My 15-year-old son is having much unexpected anxiety and depression after his older brother moved to college for the first time. It is beginning to affect all areas of his life. How can we help?
You did not say what kind of relationship your 15-year-old son had with his older brother, but I'm going to reply to your question as if it was a good and important relationship. When siblings have formed close bonds with each other, being the one left behind can be very upsetting. Your son may feel that he has lost his best friend, his role model, his defender, his primary advisor and his confidant. The dynamics of the family change considerably when the first child leaves home. If your 15-year-old is the younger of two children, he might now feel like he is an only child, without his anchor, his older brother to make him feel secure and comfortable both within your family and in his outside world. Without the presence of his brother, he now becomes the sole focus of your daily parental attention and that might feel like more than your son can bear at the emotionally charged age of 15.

Clearly it would help your son if he could find the words to articulate his depressed and anxious state. You suggest that he is becoming more distressed as the days pass and that all areas of his life are being negatively affected. If in fact his distress is a result of missing his brother so much, I would strongly recommend that you reconnect these brothers as soon as possible. I don't know how easily that is accomplished, given your older son's distance from home. But even if your college boy is far from home, I would still set their reconnecting in person as a top priority at this time. Your college son needs to know how his brother has responded since his departure. Perhaps he will know how best to help his younger brother cope with his absence. You need to be careful not to make your older son feel guilty about his brother's falling apart and you need to be certain that you do not make your younger son feel ashamed or like "a baby" because of his emotional tailspin. Make every effort to keep your younger son feeling connected to his older brother through emails, phone calls, and visits to college if possible.

Don't expect the mere passage of time to heal the sense of loss your 15-year-old is feeling. If more connecting to his brother does not begin to improve his sense of well-being and if his life continues to worsen in all areas, I would suggest professional counseling. Let's first see what can be done with lots of empathy and support from you and a strong effort to keep him as connected to his brother as possible.

Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.

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