Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
August and September months can be an exciting time for 18-year-olds (ish) going off to college or leaving the family home for the first time. The young adult kiddos are ready to experience independence, new academic challenges, and develop new relationships.
But what about parents and caregivers who have spent the majority of their lives prioritizing their children’s needs? For those empty nesters, it may be a time filled with mixed emotions.
After moving my eldest daughter into her dorm and feeling I had done all the “right things” to prepare her, I got in my very empty car and sobbed. I literally remember feeling my heart hurt. “Ouch, how am I going to do this?” I wondered. Then, when my younger daughter went off to college a few years later, I really questioned my purpose.
So I got a fish (I couldn’t have a dog at the time). That fish smiled at me and flapped its fins each day when I came home from work (actually, it was probably the food I placed at the top of its bowl), but it gave me something to care for and appeared to care for me.
The truth is, parents really begin letting go of children from the day they’re born, it just comes in many different forms. From a child learning to walk, going to kindergarten, tweens going out with friends, driving a car, and then finally to moving out or going off to college.
Children leaving the family home is the ultimate symbol of an empty nest. Each necessary step in a child’s development may hit a little differently, yet it’s all in the service of letting our children become the adults they want to be (and we want them to be).
Reflecting back, I remember thinking, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” (Charles Dickens). Which is it? Childrearing is likely a little bit of both. With all the mixed, complicated emotions, there’s a lot to process.
Many parents experience deep feelings of grief, loss, and sadness when their children move on. In fact, there’s a name for what you might be experiencing, Empty Nest Syndrome.
Although this experience is not a clinical condition, Empty Nest Syndrome can be described as feelings of grief, loneliness, and even despair parents feel when their children move out of the family home.
Empty Nest myths debunked
First, let’s take a look at some commonly held misconceptions or myths about how one should feel or behave when their children leave the home.
- It’s selfish to feel sad. False, it’s completely natural to feel sad when your children leave for college. Not only is it normal, it reminds us how much we value our relationships with our children.
- There’s only one right way to feel. False, we can be sad AND excited for them (and us) at the same time
- I’m a bad parent if I feel relieved/excited. Actually, it’s okay to get excited about having your own life with a little more time for you.
- I won’t get through this. Not true. You can be okay, maybe even better than okay!
- I have no life outside of being a parent. False. You can create a life separate from your children, rediscover old interests or develop new ones.
- My kids don’t need me anymore. Actually, even adult children need their parents, just in different ways! The parent-child relationship changes, and you get to interact in a whole different, grown-up way.
- Loving means not letting go. No, it’s important to let go and let your kids be responsible for themselves and their choices.
How to cope with Empty Nest Syndrome
Speaking to a therapist about this major life transition can be especially helpful. A therapist can offer non-judgmental support and guidance about how to address the changes and ultimately adjust to this huge life pivot. In the meantime, here are a few ideas of what you can do to cope:
- Speak to friends who’ve had the same experience
- Plan a date to see your kids at school (at least a month away in order to give them and you some time to adjust)
- Come up with a plan with your child regarding the frequency of calling and texting (keeping in mind what will foster a healthy transition for you both)
- Set healthy boundaries and practice assertive communication with your kids
- Normalize the range of emotions you’re experiencing instead of judging them as good or bad (e.g., say: “It’s natural to feel ____, this is a big life transition.”)
- Identify what’s ultimately been put on the “back burner” while you were busy being a parent and reflect on what you may want to start doing
- Experiment with a new hobby or join a club/group
What not to do
- Resist being overly involved in your child’s college experience (allow them to make their own decisions and resolve their own conflicts)
- Don’t soothe your loneliness by trying to call your kid(s) all the time (or encourage your child to call you excessively)
- Avoid the temptation of allowing your child to come home without trying to adjust
- Don’t beat yourself up for not loving your life right now
- Refrain from comparing yourself to other parents or what they do or don’t do
Interestingly enough, you may realize some things about yourself once your nest has emptied. You might think things like: “Wow, I really haven’t been taking care of myself.” Or “I haven’t done anything fun just for me in a long time.”
You may realize you don’t know how to structure your own time without having your children’s schedules and needs to account for. Depending on your circumstances, if you’re a single parent, divorced or a grandparent whose job has been to take care of the kids, you may ask yourself, “what now?”
Again, children leaving home is a significant milestone in the life of a parent/caregiver that naturally will take some time to figure out. Mixed feelings are understandable. Be patient with yourself and try to make room for the uncertainty as you try new things and begin building a different day-to-day.
This adjustment brings opportunities for self-reflection and even new adventures for moms and dads. What a great time for parents to re-evaluate how to manage their mental health, their own goals, relationships, and prioritize their values.
If you find yourself experiencing a sense of despair, loneliness, feelings of worthlessness or questioning your value; therapy may provide some assistance. The team at The Psychology Group is ready to support you on your journey, please give us a call!
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