You have looked after them for 18 years through the good times and the bad. You’ve been a mentor, confidant, taxi service, cook, cheerleader, and bottle washer and now they are leaving.
It is the time of year when high school graduates gather up their belongings and head off to college to start a new and exciting chapter in their lives. But they are not the only ones facing new beginnings. Parents left with an empty nest must also start a new chapter in their lives. Parents left at home might be experiencing some new and mixed emotions as their kids head off on their own. Managing this transition is important for parents. Here are some ways to understand and manage empty nest syndrome.
Parenting and Identity
Our identities are defined by the various roles we play in life. The larger and more meaningful a role is, the more significant it is to our identity. There are few roles more important, more time-consuming, or more meaningful than parenting. It defines who we are and what we do. So when our last child leaves home, it isn’t just the nest that can feel empty. Parents often struggle with a profound sense of loss, not just because they miss their child, but because their very identities have been significantly impacted.
Although parents may have spent years encouraging their children to become independent, the experience of letting go can still be painful. Some parents may find it difficult to suddenly have no children at home who need their care. They may also miss being a part of their children’s daily lives — as well as the constant companionship. Some parents also worry about the safety of their children and whether they’ll be able to take care of themselves on their own. This transition can be difficult for those who strongly identify with their role as parent. These parents may have a particularly difficult time adjusting to an empty nest.
Strategies for Overcoming Empty Nest Syndrome
Ideally, it is best not wait until the child leaves home to begin the adjustment process. The sooner you take action to address your upcoming needs, the better off you will be emotionally. Many therapists advocates for parents to start this preparation when children are still young, as doing so gradually over the years will make the departure easier both for them and for the parents. However, for those who have not planned ahead, here are some basic strategies to consider:
Make a list of the roles you have in your life. Include roles that require a regular investment of time and energy such as Wife or Husband, Sister or Brother, Daughter or Son, Friend, Neighbor, Sports Team Member, Pet Owner, your Profession, Business Owner or Employee, and any other roles you can think of. Go through your list and indicate which of those roles you might be able to expand. For example, if you have a spouse or partner, you could reinvest in the relationship, find new mutual interests, and rekindle your romance. If you do not have a partner, you can consider reentering the dating world. You could also refocus on your career or become more active in any community involvements you have.
Create a list of new interests you would like to explore. Look for meet-ups in your area as a place to connect with others who share similar interest, or start a meet-up yourself. Try thinking back to interests you had before you had children and consider exploring those to start. It is best to get involved before your child leaves home but if it is too late to do so, try to get things on your calendar as soon as you can. Getting involved in new activities and interests will help accelerate your emotional adjustment and it will also alleviate some of the emptiness you feel.
Accept the timing. Avoid comparing your child’s timetable to your own experience or expectations. Instead, focus on what you can do to help your child succeed when he or she does leave home. If you look like you will fall apart when they leave, then they won’t be able to emotionally leave, which is necessary for their development. Of course they will always be your child, but now you need to find a more adult relationship with them.
Avoid big changes. Don’t make any big moves yet. Give yourself time to adjust to your child being gone rather than suddenly selling the house or moving. It sometimes takes people up to two years to fully adjust to life without kids around.
Keep in touch. You can continue to be close to your children even when you live apart. Mobile phones and the internet make it much easier nowadays to keep in touch with your children. Make an effort to maintain regular contact through visits, phone calls, emails, texts, or video chats. Talk with your child about a realistic expectation of how often contact will happen. Encourage other siblings to stay in touch with college bound kids as well.
Prepare your child. Preparing your child is good for your child and it’s also good for you. This way you won’t have to worry if they can cook a meal, do their own laundry, or balance a check book. If they are not prepared, they will continue to rely on you, which isn’t good for either of you, so make sure you have taught them the essentials. Then try hard to let them go and be proud of yourself for the fine job of parenting you have done.
Seek support from those around you. If you are having a difficult time dealing with an empty nest, lean on friends and loved ones for support. Share your feelings. If you feel depressed, consult your doctor or a mental health care provider. Talk with other empty nesters who have gone through it.
Expect that the absence of one child will be hard on siblings. Having a child go off to college changes the whole family dynamic. Not only will it impact parents, but also siblings still at home. Siblings who are close may “feel” the empty seat at the dinner table just as much as parents.