The kid is off to college and what do mom and dad do? Many find this online ‘lifeline.’

Sending your kid off to college can be scary, exciting, confusing and downright sad. But thousands of empty nesters, helicopter parents and moms and dads of college students in North Carolina and across the nation have found solace in the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook group.

Grown & Flown, started as a blog written by two moms, is now an extensive online community with a Facebook group of about 130,000 moms and dads talking about their kids at all hours of the day. The private group adds about 1,000 people every week.

Every day, parents ask questions, share ideas and post photos of their kids. And every day, other parents and professionals offer advice, support and a conversation that used to happen on the sidelines of the soccer field or waiting in the carpool line after school.

“It can be a very lonely time of parenting and you crave community and you crave expert help and it’s really hard to know where to get it,” Mary Dell Harrington, writer and co-founder of Grown and Flown. “I think that we were an answer to many questions.”

Have a question about dorm rooms and college move-in essentials? Worried about your child vaping? Need advice about tracking your teen or how to handle their DUI? Want to share an inspiring graduation story or cute prom photo of your son or daughter?

This is a place to get expert advice or another parent’s perspective. And it can be anonymous.

“People say this happened to me and this is what it did,” Harrington said. “It’s an enormous opportunity to protect your family’s privacy and still have support and information that you can take action on.”

A virtual help book for parents

Harrington and Lisa Heffernan initially started writing a blog for parents of teens, college students and young adults. They’d known each other since their kids were in elementary school and when their oldest boys went off to college they felt there wasn’t much being published for that stage of parenting.

Four years later, that blog turned into a Grown & Flown website, which now has more than 500 contributing writers, a new book that was published in early September, and multiple Facebook groups. Harrington said creating the Facebook group for parents of highschoolers and college kids spurred that growth.

Lisa Heffernan and Mary Dell Harrington profil pic 5.19 (high res) .jpg
Lisa Heffernan and Mary Dell Harrington are co-founders of Grown and Flown, an online community to help parents of teens and young adults navigate through the high school and college years. Cathrine White Provided by Grown and Flown

It offered a place for parents to ask questions they might not feel comfortable asking a friend in the neighborhood, get advice if they’re worried about how their kid is adjusting or share their own feelings about this new lifestyle. Sometimes hundreds of people will comment on a single post.

Marybeth Bock said when she first joined the group it made her feel more normal about all the feelings that she had as a parent sending her first kid off to college.

“It makes you realize any questions you have and thoughts you have of “is this just my kid?”... There’s thousands of other parents out here feeling the exact same way,” Bock said.

Parents have broad conversations about meal plans and how to use Bed Bath and Beyond to your advantage when you’re moving your student across the country. They also ask for specific recommendations about places to stay when visiting UNC-Chapel Hill, what local bakery around N.C. State University they should use to send their daughter cupcakes for her birthday or which car repair shop near East Carolina University is most reliable.

Marybeth Bock, whose daughter graduated from Duke University, has been a member of the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook group for several years. Provided by Marybeth Bock

“The search feature is extremely helpful to utilize the information from all the members. Questions about areas in the country, specific colleges, majors, dealing with the surliness (or joys) of our teenagers. Which tests to take, FAFSA applications, Common App. You name it, it’s been discussed on this FB page. Someone is always available to answer a question no matter the time,” UNC-Chapel Hill mom Deann Mizzi wrote in the group.

The group can also help reassure parents that they aren’t as much of a helicopter parent as they thought. Bock said she quickly realized that “there’s always someone out there who is so much more of a helicopter parent.”

Bock joined four years ago, the summer before she flew across the country to help her daughter move in at Duke University. Their family lives in Phoenix, Arizona, and while she says she never doubted her daughter would be successful, the initial separation was hard.

“There’s a lot of conflict with parents of college kids in that we’re much closer to them than even our parents were with us just one generation ago,” Bock said, especially with social media connecting them. “They’ve grown up using Facebook and Instagram. We’re so much more connected visually that when they leave it is this void that you have to get used to.”

Parents today have also helped their kids much more than previous generations, Bock said, and that makes them worry whether they did too much, whether their kids will be competent enough or resilient enough.

“That’s the thing that’s helped being in this group,” Bock said. “You can see from older parents that they’re going to figure things out. Don’t worry.”

Anonymous posts offer guidance

In the Grown & Flown Facebook group, parents are able to submit questions to moderators who will post them anonymously. Other members, who have been vetted by the moderators, can comment on the post offering their thoughts as a medical professional, lawyer, professor or another parent who’s gone through a similar situation. The group makes it clear that taking the advice given shouldn’t substitute for seeking professional help.

Anonymous questions tend to be about some of the hardest challenges parents face, Harrington said. In four years, the group has had about 3,000 anonymous questions from parents.

Posts range from academic issues to binge-drinking to video-gaming to romantic relationships. Parents also reach out asking how to help their child who’s suffering from depression and anxiety or how best to handle their child telling them they are gay or transgender.

“You get great advice from people that have either been there or are professionals that can say this would be a good course of action to take,” Bock said. “I think it just brings so many parents comfort knowing that they’re not alone. And there’s always someone that can help you.”

A new community for empty nesters

Parents from all over the country are in the group. Some are from large urban areas. For others, this group is larger than their hometown and much more diverse.

Harrington said regardless of parents’ personal experiences, where they live or what their views are, being a good parent is something that connects each of them.

“I have a daughter who is a Senior at Chapel Hill, a son who is in the throes of the college app process and a High School Freshman daughter,” LiaMarin Carling Waldron wrote in the group. “This group is mainly for MY entertainment and free therapy.”

Relationships in the group have also turned into relationships in real life. The group has organized meetups, and moms will ask to meet for coffee in a college town. Some find each other at orientation and bond over those big blue IKEA bags. Others have realized their sons play on the same college football team.

The online community can help parents find comfort when they’re questioning their feelings.

“I had many people ask me why I’m so sad since he left because he’s so close,” Bethany Rudy wrote in the group. Her son is a freshman at N.C. State and only about 20 minutes from home.

“I felt wrong for feeling that way,” Rudy wrote. “But, this group helped me to understand that I’m still entitled to be sad because this is about a huge life change and adjustment to a new family dynamic, not just about distance.”

How do parents join?

Grown and Flown Parents is a closed group on Facebook. Parents have to request to become members and answer a few questions to ensure they are who they say they are and belong in the group.

The nine administrators and moderators approve the members and their posts.

Members agree to follow 10 rules, including no politics, no promotional posts, no asking for money, no hate speech or bullying. They also ask members to respect others’ privacy and be kind.

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Kate Murphy covers higher education for The News & Observer. Previously, she covered higher education for the Cincinnati Enquirer on the investigative and enterprise team and USA Today Network. Her work has won state awards in Ohio and Kentucky and she was recently named a 2019 Education Writers Association finalist for digital storytelling.
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