By Elizabeth Bernstein
Wall Street Journal
A Survival Guide for Parents Now That Your Child Is Off to College
It’s the best of times and the worst of times: You just became an empty nester. When a child leaves for college, parents have the happiness of seeing their son or daughter mature and start off on an independent life. They also miss constant connection, fret about their child’s well-being, and worry about the way the relationship may change. Esther Boykin, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Washington, D.C., says that empty nesters may experience a type of grief—for the loss of the relationship as it was. In some cases, some see a therapist. In an interview, she talked about the mixed feelings empty nesters often have and what they can do. Here are edited excerpts.
WSJ: What are some of the emotions that empty nesters typically feel?
Ms. Boykin: The empty nest kicks up much more than just sadness or loneliness. For many parents, there is also guilt about what they wish they had, or hadn’t, done while raising their child. This can range from specific negative interactions along the way to a broad sense of not having done enough to prepare them for the “real world.” And they can feel a great deal of anxiety and worry about how their child will fare in a new environment. Parents can also feel excitement, pride, joy, and relief as they get a glimpse of a life that doesn’t center around kids and their goals all the time.
Why is this such a complicated issue?
Parents experience an ambiguous loss, or a loss that doesn’t really look like loss. Their child is typically just a few hours or a short plane ride away, so they haven’t lost them. Yet the emotional experience of their absence can feel incredibly profound and permanent. This person whom you have centered your life around for 18 years is no longer around on a daily basis and is loosening the connection that had been all encompassing. The greatest challenge for parents is that they know that the goal of good parenting is to a raise self-sufficient, independent adult, but the realization of that goal creates a deep sense of loss that can be confusing. It’s like realizing that you did an awesome job and the reward is that the person you love most is leaving you for good.
Do both fathers and mothers experience the emotions of empty nesting the same way?
The truth is that a parent’s emotions are more related to the relationship they have with their child and their role as a caregiver than they are with gender. Often, the parent who has the more emotionally intimate relationship will have an easier time processing empty-nest emotions. They may find it easier to trust their child is ready for the challenges of adulthood and to establish regular communication.
Are empty nesters ever envious of their children?
Sometimes. If you see this as a sign that you are old and your life is winding down, then it is easy to be envious of your children and all of the new experiences that lay ahead of them. Envy can also be a problem for parents who felt they didn’t get the same opportunities. Unfortunately this is often wrapped up in guilt as well. Parents who find themselves feeling jealous of their child’s opportunities often then feel guilty or ashamed of that feeling.
How does empty nesting affect a couple?
It can be easy to neglect your relationship while the kids are home and life is centered around family rather than romance, but once the kids leave you have to figure out how to reconnect. At a time when you both may need comfort and companionship, you are faced with the realization that you don’t know how to do that with each other very well anymore. Think about this long before the kids leave home. Don’t assume that once your schedules are your own you will magically rekindle the spark of passion or find it easy to connect. It is also important to talk openly about what’s going on—not only about your individual experiences but what you want and need from each other as partners. I see lots of couples where one partner is excited about all the free time and ready to go on adventures while the other one is sad, lonely, and just wants to grieve. This difference isn’t bad but it usually sets the stage for some resentment and judgment on both sides.
Should you talk to your child about your feelings?
Part of cultivating a new relationship with your child is having more grown-up conversations. The goal is to share appropriately without making your child feel responsible for your emotional state. One way to check yourself before sharing is to ask yourself what you hope to get from the conversation. If the answer is comfort and caretaking, then it is probably best for you talk to a friend, family member or your significant other first.
How can you renegotiate your relationship with your child?
Create some new routines. Some things will happen organically, like a phone call on Thursdays as you head to work and they head into their early class. Be intentional about establishing some simple ways to connect regularly. This could include anything from emails, texts, and phone calls, to social media check-ins or setting a schedule for visits. And remember that being emotionally supportive to an adult is much more about being available than it is about fixing problems. Practice being a good listener and ask before giving advice. Not only will you respect your child’s desire for autonomy but you send the message that you believe in their ability to manage their life without your input even when you want to give it.
SOME ADVICE FROM ESTHER BOYKIN ON WEATHERING EMPTY NESTING:
- Feel the feelings. Cry, write in a journal, vent to a friend, family member, or therapist. Do whatever you can to let those emotions out.
- Take care of yourself. Eat healthy, go outside, listen to music, get adequate sleep. It’s easy for sadness to overwhelm us and that can put us in a cycle of poor self-care which only amplifies difficult emotions.
- Develop a check-in ritual. Tell your child you miss him or her and establish a routine for phone calls, text messages or FaceTime. Respect your child’s need for independence but also honor your need for connection.
- Let go of the guilt. There is so much time now to question all the parenting decisions made over the previous 18 years. Don’t waste time looking back. Focus your energy on remembering the fun and joy of parenting at each stage of your child’s life.
- Build a support circle. Reach out to other parents who have gone through this life stage. Many universities have parent groups in various cities and on social media.