Flying the Coop: Dealing with an Empty Nest

We’ve all seen the commercials, with the giddy middle-aged parents secretly taking measurements of their college-bound student’s room, sizing it up for a new media room as soon as their child leaves for the dorm.  While these parents may be reveling in the sense of independence and freedom of space that comes when a child leaves for college, this reaction is generally not the norm. Many parents feel conflicted, and have feelings of emptiness and fear loneliness during this time in their child’s life.  

Rena Essrog, JFCS Director of Programming and Clinical Services, says, “Parents tend to have anticipatory anxiety in the year before college, as their children are applying to colleges.  They can prepare themselves to know that it is going to be a stressful time, but parents have to be careful not to project that on their children.  If they are negative, the child will leave feeling guilty, and may lack the confidence that they can do well in college, thinking they can’t succeed without mom or dad being there.  It’s really about keeping boundaries with your college-bound child.”

But the difficulties of empty nest syndrome aren’t only between parent and child.  The parents can find the new, one-on-one living situation with their spouse can put strain on the marriage. Particularly so if the parents were heavily involved and frequently participating in their child’s activities for most of the couple’s married life.  “It can be difficult for some couples – and is hard if you’ve always been with the kids.  The sudden alone time with one another can mean a couple has to get to know each other again, without distractions,” says Essrog.  

It is important for the husband and wife to rediscover the things they used to do – before the child-raising years – both as individuals and as a couple.  “It is a time to explore your previous hobbies, join clubs, and find your own activities.  It’s also a time to get to know each other again as a couple, and uncover your interests together.  It doesn’t mean calling your child at school every five minutes and only living through their college experience,” says Essrog.  The “empty nest” can represent the unnerving proposition of learning an entirely new lifestyle to which one may not be accustomed. However, it can truly be a beneficial time of growth and personal exploration, if navigated in the right light.  The Mayo Clinic offers some keys to helping during this transition:  

  • Accept the timing.  Avoid comparing your child’s timetable to your own personal experience. Instead, focus on what you can do to help your child succeed when he or she does leave home.
  • Keep in touch.  You can continue to be close to your children even when you live apart.  Make an effort to maintain regular contact through visits, phone calls, emails, texts, or video chats.
  • Seek support.  If you’re having a difficult time dealing with an empty nest, lean on loved ones and other close contacts for support.  Share your feelings.  If you feel depressed, consult your doctor or a mental health provider.  
  • Stay positive.  Thinking about the extra time and energy you might have to devote to your marriage or personal interests after your last child leaves home might help you adapt to this major life change.  

If you are in need of support, call 856-424-1333 to speak to a JFCS intake counselor


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