Letting Go of My Son with Crohn's Disease

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My son, Matt, is in his fourth year of college. For most parents, this is a big deal. For me and my husband, it's really huge. Matt suffers from severe Crohn's disease, so letting him out from under our wings was quite a challenge. But we learned to let him go, and it was a gift for all of us.

At the beginning of college, Matt wasn't taking care of himself. Eventually, Matt realized he wasn't living a sustainable lifestyle - he stopped drinking, started eating healthy, and got more sleep.

But before that major shift, I deliberately set up systems so it would be easier to give him the reins.

Take Advantage of Available Resources

My sister suggested we register with his college's special assistance program for students with disabilities. They helped us sort out unique things Matt needed, like making sure there was a private bathroom close by where he could change his ostomy bag. Or when Matt got sick and had to miss class, the assistance program had students in his classes take notes for him. Matt really didn't want to tell his professors about his situation - he wanted to be like every other college kid around him. So, when he was forced to miss three weeks of class one semester, the assistance program informed his teachers on his behalf, allowing him to focus his attention on getting healthy.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

My mom had six kids and was a worrier like me. She once told me that the way to keep yourself sane is to stay busy. I took a full-time job when both my sons were out of the house, and it helped me focus on something other than worrying about Matt. And I found that can be easier if you don't know exactly what's going on. I didn't want to know all the details of Matt's college experience; I just wanted to know that he was taking care of himself and studying hard. And it worked! I stayed busy, and Matt had his ups and downs, but I didn't worry about him as much as I had anticipated.

Don't Be a Hover Parent

Yes, this is much easier said than done. But I knew that I needed to let Matt be independent. Fighting the urge to call or text was difficult but necessary. I'll admit, sometimes I would write him a text and then delete it, or pick up the phone to call him only to set it down. I eventually found a great system - initially, I would try to touch base with him every other day. Then, I got to a place where I could go two or three days without contacting him. And I found that the longer I went without communicating with him, the more likely it was that he'd call me. When Matt's brother went to college, I had the system down. Now, my boys know that I'll call on Sunday night to check in with them. It's my way of making sure they survived the weekend. But it's a good way to keep my distance while staying sane.

I have a secret to share: When I haven't heard from Matt in a few days and I can't think of a good reason to call or text him, I'll ask my mom to text him to check in. He always responds to Memaw!

Learn to Trust Your Child

The biggest factor in being able to let Matt live his life independently was realizing I could trust him to take care of himself. Ultimately, Matt took responsibility of his condition, and that's what really allowed me to take a step back.

A few weeks ago, Matt said something that I'll never forget - a simple comment that meant so much. We were preparing dinner together, and he said, "I was online and researching it, and this is definitely not something I'm supposed to eat while I'm taking this drug." I was shocked. He was thinking and reading and looking at his symptoms - taking an active role in his disease. He wasn't just following doctor's orders or parental instructions; Matt took the initiative to take care of himself.

To other parents who are struggling to let go of their kids with chronic illness, it gets easier. You're going to miss your child, yes, but then you're going to realize that he or she will be okay - and so will you. Find something to occupy your time, let your kid make mistakes and learn from them, and try to understand that your child has to start taking responsibility for his or her life - your son or daughter can't be under your care forever.

Lori Miles lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband, Philip, who helps her to resist texting her sons every few hours. 

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Medical Reviewer: Lloyd, William C, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2014 Feb 10
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THIS CONTENT DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. This content is provided for informational purposes and reflects the opinions of the author. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified healthcare professional regarding your health. If you think you may have a medical emergency, contact your doctor immediately or call 911.