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Insights for Empty Nest Parents

The day has finally arrived. Your child is packing her bags for college. You have supported, guided, encouraged, nudged, and loved her through her childhood and teenage years.

During the past 17-plus months, you have helped her through all of the changes, frustrations, and tears that Covid-19 has brought to our lives, including canceled test dates and closed campuses. You have sat with her through virtual tours, reviewed her transcript, class rank and GPA, made sure she has at least one set of SAT scores, reminded her of deadlines, completed thecollege decisions FAFSA, impatiently waited with her for those all-important college acceptance letters, and calculated how to pay for it all.

Your daughter is feeling excited, happy and a little scared. You, on the other hand, are feeling like your heart is being ripped right out of your chest. What’s this all about?

I once asked a friend to describe the way she felt when her first-born son left for college. “You would think I would have been happy, wouldn’t you. I’d have more time on my hands.  I could finally take that class I wanted. But instead I felt as if a limb was being amputated from my body.” I honestly thought she was being over-dramatic until my own firstborn left for college. My sadness felt totally out of proportion for such a normal event. After all, didn’t my daughter’s independence indicate that I had done a good job of parenting her?

I missed interacting with her every day and was faced with constant reminders of that loss. Running to her room to tell her the latest news of her little brother only to be greeted with emptiness and quiet; looking for her favorite foods in the grocery store and then lowering my head as the tears spilled from my eyes. My life was undergoing a radical change and no one seemed to notice. I felt silly and very alone.

But I wasn’t alone – and if you are getting ready to send your child to college, you are not alone either. Parents experience a whole range of emotions. As I began reading, observing and talking about the challenges faced during this time of the empty nest, I discovered insights that helped me to prepare for this season of life. Although each parents’ experience can be a bit different, I hope these insights help you face whatever changes you are feeling.

Insights for Empty Nesters:

  1. It’s a process. Remember when you were trying to wean your baby son or daughter off of the bottle, the breast, the pacifier or the blanket? It was a process and took time, just like now. It is going to take time for you adjust to this new way of being with your child. Breathe and honor where you are. Meditation and exercise can help.
  2. Validate and honor your emotions. Your feelings are real and need to be honored. A suggestion that really helped me was to journal my thoughts and feelings. Also, look for or start a support group as there are other folks in your area, I’m sure, who are experiencing this same pain and grief. If you find that you need more support, seek a counselor who specializes in supporting parents through this transition.
  3. This is grief. The feelings that you have are the same as if someone you loved has died. A death has occurred. The death of your life with your child up until now. Some parents are baffled when the child they have always been close to is suddenly angry and rebellious. Oftentimes, the more connected children feel toward their parents, the harder they work to break away. The resulting conflicts can be confusing but are a normal part of the grieving process.
  4. Letting go. During this time you are learning to let go of what your life with your child was so that you can welcome in this new life. Some moms and dad breeze through the empty nest transition. Others count the days until their child returns home and then spend the day after they leave crying and grieving for them all over again. The process of letting go differs from parent to parent – and sometimes is different as each child leaves home.
  5. A new kind of relationship. Your first job of raising your child into adulthood is now done. Your new task is to develop friends and a mutual support system with your adult children, acting in your new role as a wise friend and mentor. As I learned with my own children, there are a few guidelines for developing friendships with your adult, college-age kids, including:
  6. Listen more than talk.
  7. Be someone your children can share themselves with without fear of judgment.
  8. Avoid giving unsolicited advice. I always ask my children if it’s OK if I give them a piece of advice before I speak. If they say No, I don’t.
  9. Speak to your children’s friends with the same courtesy you would in speaking to one of your own friends.
  10. Rediscovering You. As you begin to move through your thoughts and feelings, this is also a time for you to remember some of the dreams that you put on hold once you became a parent. Is there a skill you’d like to learn? A hobby you’d like to turn into a business? What are you passionate about? How do you want to live this next chapter of your life?

One of the constants of life is impermanence. Everything changes and nothing lasts forever, which can be difficult. And, it can also be exciting, scary, challenging, fun, confusing, and joyful. It is also inevitable. Change can blindside you, sabotaging your life, or it can provide you with a magical opportunity to pursue adventures and dreams you’ve never imagined. The good news is that you have a choice. It’s all up to you.