A positive perspective and some advance planning can help parents (and their children) during the transition from a full house to an empty nest.
Robert Lauer remembers feeling an "incredible, gnawing emptiness" when his youngest son left the family nest. "Finding him a place to stay at school and leaving him there; returning, alone, to my hotel; and then getting on the plane to fly home, I wore my sunglasses and cried," he says.
Becoming empty nesters can be a heart-rending transition for parents. There is a natural sense of loss when children leave the family home, a feeling that the best part is over. Feelings of despair, pain, poignancy, longing, and ambivalence are common. The loss of the physical presence of their children is compounded by the loss, to some degree, of their identities as mom and dad. Some parents may fear they have not done enough to prepare their children for independence. Many parents may feel their lives have lost meaning and purpose, and they may mourn the loss of opportunities in their relationships with their children.
That is the downside. Fortunately, there is an upside, too.
Once over that difficult, initial emotional hump, the empty nest can be revitalizing, even liberating. Empty nesters have the time and energy to do things they couldn't do before. In addition to the happiness of developing their own lives after their children left home, watching their children grow and function as good, independent people can bring a lot of joy. Empty nesters no longer have the day-to-day constraints of living with children, yet can still share their lives with them. An empty nest allows you more time to nurture your marriage and pursue your common and individual interests. You may even have more discretionary income!
Preparation and perspective are the keys to easing the transition. Work through the feelings and know that your are not alone. It is a time when you need to figure out what you want to do and keep looking forward.
Try new things. Think of this as an adventure, and do not put limits on yourself. Open yourself to all the fullness and richness of life. If your identity is tied to being a parent, it is particularly important for you to get a running start. Write a list of things you wanted to try or do during your adult life, and find a way to do them. It will help fill in the empty time gaps and teach you to enjoy activities on your own terms.
The few weeks following your child's departure will be the most turbulent time. Make plans to fill the quiet stillness that comes after your last child leaves the house. Stay busy. Indulge yourself. Plan quiet time for you and your partner, and be loving, supportive, and understanding with each other.
Do not assume this will be a negative experience. The majority of women in an observational study over a 9-year period found that the departure of their last child led to positive changes in mood and overall well being.
Avoid staring at each other or twiddling your thumbs now that the children are gone. Be aware however, that men and women approach their grief differently. Women tend to plan for the transition more than men, who can be caught off-guard by their feelings. It is important to keep communication lines open and realize that each person deals with the loss differently. Try to avoid friction and work on trying to put your relationship back together.
While the children are at home, many of us fall into the trap of neglecting relationships. Remember the activities you enjoyed together before the children? Take advantage of your new found freedom. Without the day-to-day stresses of having children around, you can turn to each other and plan to pursue things together. Take time to reestablish those connections. It may not be easy, so allow for some time to readjust to being alone again.
If you find that time spent with your spouse is not going the way you planned, try taking a vacation or consider marriage counseling. Remember that you both are dealing with a lot of change, so talking it out may help.
Leaving home is as difficult for children as it is for their parents. They may be feeling confused, excited, anxious, or even fearful as their departure looms. If you are getting the support you need from your partner and friends, you can attend better to your child. Burdening your children with your emotions, needs, and struggles as they prepare to leave home places a lot of guilt and stress on them at a time when they are also very vulnerable. Here are some tips to keep in mind as the day of separation nears:
Let your child know that you love them and will miss them, but that you are excited for them and have confidence in them—Celebrate what is happening for your child, and try to put a positive spin on the experience. Hide your tears for the ride home.
Let your child know that you have plans to fill your time after they leaves—Children are relieved to know their parents are going to be okay after they are gone and that they will not spend their days moping around the house because there are no children left to take care of.
Avoid sealing yourself off from your child prematurely, and let them know you are noticing their feelings—It is important to stay connected without driving them away. If your child begins disengaging as D(eparture) day approaches, do not take it personally or feel jealous or upset. It is just their way of adjusting.
Let your child determine the ritual of separation—You can settle on a preferred means of contact (phone, email, instant messaging, etc) and the minimum frequency of contact (at least once a week, for example). Parents should be prepared to receive the child on their terms. You have to respect them as adults, even if their decisions are not the ones you would have made for them.
No longer knowing where your child is and what they are doing each day can be anxiety-provoking. Try to remember that no news is good news. You were anxious when they were clumsy toddlers, when you left them crying at the school door on their first day of kindergarten, and when they drove alone for the first time. This is just the next step, so hold your breath and move on. The fuller your life is once your child leaves, the less time you will have to obsess about it.
All is not lost if you really miss your children. Adult children returning home is a growing trend in our society. Your job is not over once your children have left home. It is just different. "There's no finer friendship than being friends with your grown children," Jeanette Lauer says. "It's a parent's responsibility to nurture that."
Remember that feelings of loss and adjustment are normal. If you notice changes in appetite, sleep habits, lack of enjoyment in activities, or fatigue, you may be experiencing symptoms of depression. If these symptoms last longer than 2 weeks, contact your doctor. Depression is treatable with medications and counseling.
American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy
American Psychological Association
Canadian Psychiatric Association
Canadian Psychological Association
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Last reviewed January 2017 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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