I recently returned from one of the most wonderful and awful trips of my life. I had the chance to travel back East with my 18-year-old son, Jack, to tour the university that he’s dreamed for years of attending.

The trip was wonderful because, from the moment we stepped onto the campus, I had the opportunity to watch his excitement grow. We walked all over, becoming familiar with where he will be living and working for the next four years. It was beyond fantastic that we had this precious time to talk about life, eat and laugh together.

At the same time, the trip was AWFUL. I am embarking on what I consider the hardest part of parenting—letting go, as your kids grow up.

Transition can be hard
My children know that I will always be their No. 1 fan, no matter where they go or what careers they pursue. And my hope is that they will eventually return to live somewhere in proximity to their dear old mom. But make no bones about it, the transition from high school senior—sharing meals and laundry piles and loafing around the house—to college student, living away from home and making their own life decisions, is an abrupt change. And for most moms and dads I’ve known throughout the past 25 years of practicing pediatrics, it’s a tough adjustment.

What I’ve learned about letting go
I’m just starting this whole process, so I don’t have all the answers for parents who will follow in my footsteps, but here are some things I believe to be true, so far:

  1. Your children need you to be strong. It’s scary for kids to consider moving away from home, so it’s up to us as parents to give them confidence and help teach them that they will be OK.
  2. You will feel conflicted, and that’s normal. We want our kids to grow up and thrive as adults, but we also want them to stay tiny forever.
  3. It’s important to share your feelings with your child, but be sure to give him or her the space to experience their own big emotions. Don’t rely on them too heavily to process yours. Talk with adult family members, friends and others you find supportive as you work through your tumultuous feelings.
  4. Be involved. Talk with your teen about their schedule, help plan their travel routes, establish and talk about a budget, make sure they have the supplies they need for life outside the nest. Most of all, talk with them about how they are feeling. Or, if they don’t want to talk, just be emotionally present and patient.

Whether your child is leaving home to attend college, to work, serve in the military or follow their life dreams, their impending absence can cause you to be apprehensive, excited, sad and even fearful.

That’s all I know, so far. I will share more later, as I continue this wonderful-awful journey. While Jack finishes high school—and I try hard not to tear up every time I see a framed baby picture of him—I will try to remember that my son going away to college in a few months isn’t the end, it’s another beginning.

Many great experiences will follow these four, short years of higher education. As parents, we will be blessed with opportunities to share in the great stuff life has to offer our adult children.

For now, though—I need to find some tissues!