When your youngest child—or, really, any of your children—leaves home—whether to go off to college, start a career, or make the transition into adult life—you may experience feelings of sadness, loneliness, anxiety, grief, and depression. These feelings are associated with a phenomenon known as empty nest syndrome. Empty nest syndrome isn’t a clinical diagnosis, but the transition period and the emotions you’re experiencing after at least 18 years of living with your child are very real. This transition is, after all, a loss.
It’s normal for moms (and dads) to have mixed emotions when their kids leave. The parent-child relationship is, after all, probably the most important one you have, and with your child gone after being there for so many years, it will be changing in many ways. Are you experiencing empty nest syndrome? Here are four ways to cope with the transition:
1. Cede some control to your children.
Your adult children may not seem like adults yet (at least not to you), but they are in a new life stage and want to experience everything their newfound freedom has to offer. Let them have and enjoy this freedom. Recognize that your relationship is changing, and you need to establish some new procedures.
That means letting them call some of the shots. Try not to check up on them too frequently, because you may come across as an overbearing mother. It’s best to let them initiate phone calls, at least at first, so you know you’re not interrupting them while they're doing something important. You may ask that they check in once or twice a week, but recognize that they have new lives and are trying to live them.
Give up some control when they visit as well. You may have imposed curfews and rules in the past, but now that they’re not living under your roof anymore, it’s a good idea to ease up somewhat. That doesn’t mean you need to condone or ignore risky behavior, but it may mean allowing them to stay out late and checking up on them less frequently.
It can be difficult to figure out the changing roles. You may need to experiment for a bit before you figure it out entirely. It’s a big change: along with not having your child under your roof, you’ll need to determine what kinds of things you’ll pay for, what you can and can’t tell her to do, how often you’ll see each other, and many other factors. But remember: this is new for both of you. You can figure it out together.
2. Stay in touch.
While you shouldn’t be calling your children 24/7, you should still schedule regular times to check in. This may mean a once-a-week phone call, or, if you’re still close location-wise, an occasional lunch or dinner. (They’ll appreciate the free meal. Trust me!)
If you aren’t a frequent texter or GChatter, it might be time to become one. Being able to talk to your child online in a casual, stress-free context can help ease the transition for both of you. Plus, this kind of communication won’t feel like a burden to your child; chances are, she’s online regularly anyway, so saying hi won’t be an interruption.
The day my older brother went to college, my mom couldn’t stop crying. I set her up with AIM (RIP) and taught her how to use it, and she loved it. She let go of AIM long after most other users had abandoned it, and how relies on GChat as a primary communication method with both of her children.
3. Look for the unexpected benefits.
When my brother left for college, my parents literally turned his room into a gym. The fancy weights machines really come in handy when I visit now!
While watching your child start her new life can feel like it’s left a big hole in yours, consider the activities you can pursue now that you aren’t taking care of children fulltime. Perhaps there’s a hobby you didn’t have time to start before. Maybe you and your partner wanted to go on a vacation just the two of you, but you worried about leaving your kids home alone in the past. Now you can take that trip!
You also don’t need to feel selfish about taking some time to yourself. While you probably enjoyed having your kids around most of the time, there were likely some occasions when you wished that you could have just a short reprieve. Think of this time as a well-deserved break. Relax. Sleep in. Take up yoga. Turn your child’s room into a gym.
4. Find support.
You don’t have to do this alone. In fact, if you have a partner, someone else is going through exactly what you’re going through. Couples may find that their relationships with their husbands and wives change after their children leave, and leaning on each other for support can help ease the transition. But single parents can find plenty of support, too.
The family dynamics will change as well. If you have other children still living at home, they may be upset by the transition, too. Even though the experience of a sibling leave is certainly different from that of a child leave, they may be experiencing similar feelings. Keeping the communication open and discussing the change will help you cope. You’ll also be able to lean on each other for support.
If you have friends who are parents of children in your child’s graduating class or are the same age, they can be sources of support, too, since their children are leaving as well.
Your child may be experiencing feelings of loneliness as well—this is a transition for her, too, after all. It's okay to talk to each other about what you're experiencing and discuss what might make the transition easier.
Psychotherapy can be another resource for empty nesters, too. If you’re experience feelings of sadness or depression when your child leaves, understand that what you’re experiencing is very normal. A psychologist isn’t going to judge you for seeking help coping with your grief. She can help you develop strategies to work through the transition, as well as lend a supportive and sympathetic ear.
Coping with your new role as a mother to adult children can be a difficult transition. But recognize that while you are going through a loss, you're not losing your relationship with your children; instead, you're developing a different type of relationship. Many moms find that their new family dynamics facilitate stronger connections with their children, since they can relate to each other on a new level. While you may expierence mixed emotions, recognize that ultimately, this is a natural, normal life step, and it's okay to feel whatever you feel.