In a viral social media post shared on the eve of move-in day, San Diego State University encouraged incoming freshmen students to let their parents take pictures, make their bed, and embarrass them because “[a]s you start the new chapter of your life, they are also starting the new chapter of theirs. And believe it or not, this is probably more difficult for them than it is for you.”
That post reappears annually around the start of the academic year because it’s true — sending kids to college and becoming an empty nester is a major shift for parents. “It’s a seismic shift,” says Nina Vallone, mom of two and a writer for ChicagoNow.
We spoke with experts who shared some dos and don’ts for parents looking to make the most of their newly empty nest.
1. Do have something to look forward to after dropping off your last kid at college
The experts agree that it’s wise to plan something fun right after saying farewell to your youngest. “Don’t go straight home,” says Lisa Heffernan, the co-founder of the website Grown and Flown, which has a Facebook page liked by more than a quarter million parents of young adults. She suggests taking a vacation if it’s in the budget.
2. Don’t wait until your last kid is gone to start preparing
As your children are going through the college application process, they start looking and preparing for a different life ahead of them. Parents should be using that time to do the same.
“Start earlier than you think and start imagining what you want your life to look like when your kids are away from the nest,” advises Melissa Shultz, author of “From Mom to Me Again: How I Survived My First Empty-Next Year and Reinvented the Rest of My Life” and acquisitions editor at Jim Donovan Literary Agency. She reminds parents that they “aren’t too old to try new things.”
Shultz advises that parents have date nights when they don’t discuss the kids while they’re still living at home and also think in advance what goals they may have. Vallone says that she and her husband have done just that and have been proactively discussing what kind of life they envision for themselves without kids at home.
Susan Newman, social psychologist and contributor to Psychology Today and author of “Nobody’s Baby Now,” also urges preparing early, though she says if you are sending a child off soon and haven’t given much thought to the empty nest, “you still have time.”
3. Do find a community of others in the same boat
“You are not alone when it comes to facing an empty nest, and it’s helpful to find others who are in a similar situation to remind you of that fact,” says Heffernan.
Heffernan suggests having a care-package-making party with other parents. Parents from your child’s high school class get together, and each brings items to contribute to care packages. While enjoying food and drink, parents assemble the packages with the items from the different parents. Include a photo of the parents who came together in the box. Seeing you having fun with friends may keep kids from worrying about you and remind them that lots of people care about them, and you.
“Friendships are so important,” stresses Shultz. She suggests finding people who are “supportive and open to trying new things.”
4. Don’t expect your spouse to feel the same way
The community can be particularly helpful if your spouse is having a different reaction than you are, which is very common. Newman notes that “sometimes, men take the separation harder than women.”
“Often one spouse is grieving while the other is bursting with pride. There is nothing wrong with either,” says Heffernan, who adds that a little kindness to your other half goes a long way.
5. Do know that it’s more than OK to feel happy
While many people speak of the empty nest in very somber tones, it’s not an overwhelming sad moment for everyone. It’s often a time of mixed emotions.
In a national survey of more than 1,000 parents of young adults by Clark University in 2013, Dr. Jeffrey Arnett found that parents experience a range of emotions. More than 80 percent of parents said they missed their children who had moved out, but 60 percent were pleased to enjoy additional time with their spouse or partner as well as to have more time for themselves.
“I was thrilled!” says Newman, adding that she finds the idea that parents are sad over the empty nest to be a myth. “You’ll feel it, but it’s not overwhelming. There are positive aspects and parents adjust fairly rapidly.”
Vallone says she expects to feel both feelings, often in proximity. “I suspect that one day I’ll be crying and another day I’ll be shouting from the rooftops with joy,” she says.
6. Don’t be afraid to seek professional help
“Give yourself permission to work through it,” suggests Shultz, who says the first few months are the most difficult for those who do feel sad. She notes that sadness and tumultuous emotions are very common when experiencing big life changes.
However, she says that if you’re consumed with these emotions for a long period of time or finding it hard to function, reach out and get professional help.
7. Do discuss the shift with your kids
While you don’t want to overshare any of your emotions with your child, it’s reasonable to talk with them about how their departure marks a big shift for everyone, not just them.
“You need to handle your transition yourself; it is not your kid’s issue,” warns Heffernan. But, while you shouldn’t dump your emotions on them, Shultz says it is important to keep the lines of communication open.
“Let your kids know that you are changing as well as them — you are on parallel but separate tracks of starting a new life,” explains Shultz. She adds, “Tell them that it’s going to be different and you’re each going to be imperfect as you figure things out, but it takes practice and it is important to be patient with each other.”
It’s also wise to talk about how you will be stepping back and letting them make decisions and handle conflicts, and shifting into what Shultz says is more of a mentoring role, rather than active parenting. She tells her kids, “Let me know how I can help and when I can help, but I know you’ve got this.”
8. Don’t think that you will have the same experience your parents did
For many, what they know most about the empty nest is what they’ve heard from their own parents or other older relatives, but times have changed. “It’s 2018, not 1988 or even 1998. This is not the same kind of loss that our parents felt,” says Heffernan. She notes that parenting today looks very different than it did a few decades ago. In addition, technology has changed what the relationships between parents and young adults look like.
Heffernan says her family has transitioned to conversations around what she calls the “digital dinner table” and that while her family interaction is done electronically, “we are continuing the same conversation we’ve had for two decades.” She says some families use GroupMe, others are all on Instagram, and some kids are willing to use Facebook. “The technological meeting place is different for each family. Just find that place that’s about family and not about their life away from you,” suggests Heffernan.
9. Do know that you’re still a parent, and feel the pride that comes with launching a child
The experts agree that at the center of the emotions surrounding the empty nest is pride for successfully raising and launching a child into the world.
“Pat yourself on the back,” says Newman.
Don’t see the empty nest as a sign that parenting days are over. That’s far from true. They’ll be back for the holidays, summers, and other visits before you know it. Says Heffernan, “Parenting never ends.”
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Shannan Younger is a writer living in the western suburbs of Chicago with her husband and teen daughter. Originally from Ohio, she received her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Notre Dame. Her essays have been published in several anthologies and her work has been featured on a wide range of websites, from the Erma Bombeck Humor Writers Workshop to the BBC. She also blogs about parenting at Between Us Parents.
Shannan is the Illinois Champion Leader for [email protected], a campaign of the United Nations Foundation that supports vaccination efforts in developing countries to ensure life-saving vaccines reach the hardest to reach children. “Vaccines are one of the most effective ways to save the lives of children in developing countries and I’d love nothing more than to see diseases eradicated,” Shannan says. “We are so close to getting rid of polio for good!”