“Give the ones you love wings to fly, roots to come back and reasons to stay.” –Dalai Lama
My youngest child is heading off to college, and many of my friends are going through the same experience. Because I am a therapist as well as a mom, people ask my advice about how best to handle this tricky transition. It seems most Americans simply haven’t put a lot of thought into what it will be like when their nest becomes suddenly empty.
Bittersweet mix of emotions
Some of my friends have been downright celebratory about the imminent freedom from parental obligations; others are depressed and heartbroken—they wonder how they will carry on now that their jobs as parents have been taken away. Most parents fall somewhere in-between, with a mix of emotions.
(At the negative extreme, some people feel devastated when their kids leave. They have what’s called “empty nest syndrome,” an emotional state in which a person feels depressed, lonely and filled with grief. If you find yourself feeling this badly, if it gets in the way of your normal activities, it is important to reach out for counseling and/or emotional support.)
We are raising adults
I like to say that we are not raising children, we are raising adults. From the early stages of life we teach our kids to walk, talk, be kind to others and find things that make them happy. We show them how to deal with anger in appropriate ways, to be respectful and so much more. As they become proficient in these areas, we take great pride and continue to teach them skills that will help them thrive and accomplish goals such as getting into college, finding a job, going out on their own and ultimately leaving the nest.
All this hard work on our part and theirs culminates in what can be the greatest joy and one of our biggest heartbreaks. Yes, being an empty nester is bittersweet. On one hand we are proud to see our kids launch into the world and excited that we can actually have some fun and get some rest! On the other hand, our jobs as parents have changed and diminished, our houses are going to be quieter and we will worry about them in new and different ways.
Here are common questions people ask me about the empty nest experience, and a few tips with each.
How often should I contact my kids?
- Even though you will miss them and worry about them, when your kids leave home is the exact time when they may need to have a little space. It really depends on the child and what your relationship with him or her looks like.
- Try to adjust your interactions with your kids based on what you think they need and not just what you need. Have a conversation about what both of your needs are and figure out what works in terms of how often you will check in, and what form that will take.
What are best ways to stay connected?
- Often kids are not up for talking on the phone, or your timing could be off from what works for them in their new situation. Sending a quick text messages is the best, most immediate way to check in. If you want to send a longer, more involved note, email works well.
- Send an old-fashioned care package filled with things they love and that will remind them of home.
What do I do with myself in this new phase of life?
- Take time to experience your emotions. Grab a box of tissues and cry on the sofa, or talk to a friend who's been there and can comfort and advise you.
- Have fun. If you have free time, come up with new activities and hobbies, or pick up an old one. Reconnect with friends or even your spouse! Take a class and catch up on those books you’ve been meaning to read; fill your schedule with things that you enjoy doing.
- Rest. You worked hard, you raised an adult who is doing what he or she is supposed to be doing: leaving the nest. Take a vacation, go for long walks, sleep in.
- Plan for your future. Ask yourself what you want out of the next five or 10 years. If you have a partner, include him or her in that conversation. Set goals and get going on the things that will make you happy!
Stacy Kaiser is a licensed psychotherapist, author, relationship expert and media personality. She is also the author of the best-selling book, How to Be a Grown Up: The Ten Secret Skills Everyone Needs to Know, and an editor-at-large for Live Happy. Stacy is a frequent guest on television programs such as Today and Good Morning America.