When the Kids Leave for College: Battling Empty Nest Syndrome

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Fall is a time that can bring many changes for the mother who has a child or children leaving home for college for the first time.

Coping with kids leaving home is a major life change, and a woman whose identity is strongly tied to being a mother and a parent may feel her life has lost purpose and meaning. This condition is called empty nest syndrome. (Empty nest syndrome can affect any parent or guardian, male or female, but generally refers to women.)

What is Empty Nest Syndrome?

From the birth of their first child, mothers spend much of their day centered around children’s needs – nurturing them, feeding them, and chauffeuring them to and from school, events, and activities. For many, this becomes their primary role in life.

When the child or children leave home, a mother may feel an empty gap in her life that is difficult to fill. She may feel no longer needed in both a physical and emotional way. This may cause a sense of sadness and a sense of “being abandoned.”

Consider Your Child’s Feelings

While parents may grapple with feelings of sadness, loss, and anxiety due to empty nest syndrome when their children leave home for college or other endeavors, it’s crucial to remember that this transition can also be challenging for the children themselves. As they navigate new environments, with increased responsibilities, and academic pressures, they might also experience feelings of anxiety, homesickness, or stress. Parents can offer valuable emotional support by maintaining open lines of communication, providing reassurance, and expressing confidence in their abilities.

Moreover, parents can assist their children academically by providing resources like pay to do assignments, encouragement, and advice. Whether it’s helping them find effective study techniques, proofreading their essays, or offering tips on time management, such parental involvement can help ease their transition into more independent learning and living.

Empty Nest Syndrome: What is Normal and When to Seek Help

Eventually, children begin to grow up and, like little birds, they leave the nest and spread their wings. Usually, this causes them to venture farther and farther away from home. As they become more independent, they rely less on their parents to make their decisions.

It is completely normal to feel sadness when children leave home. But sometimes the lack of purpose and grief turn into a full-fledged depression. Children leaving home often happen when a woman is approaching menopause. This may make matters worse, as fluctuating hormone levels may increase the feeling of sadness and emptiness.

While it is normal to cry or to feel despondent and at loose ends for some time after a child has left for college, professional help should be sought if those feelings persist for a long period or keep the person from her normal activities. Counseling and antidepressants can often help a person get over this necessary but sometimes tough stage of life.

Help Your Kids

College students have freshman orientation and guidebooks to help them cope, but where is the orientation session for parents? Mom and Dad get forgotten, and yet they have plenty of questions as well. What can parents do to help their children through this transition while allowing them the autonomy to be adults?

  • Find a good balance between connection and intrusion. Some college students call their parents every day, and others once a week. Figure out what works for you. Don’t crowd your child with constant contact, but let him or her know that you want to stay connected and are available whenever you are needed.
  • Stay out of academic issues. This is one way that college is different from high school. In the U.S., it’s considered an invasion of privacy for college instructors to discuss a student’s progress with you. This can be incredibly frustrating, especially if you are paying for college, but it’s a reality. You can offer guidance about coursework and help with homework, but your child is now fully responsible for his or her educational success.
  • If you are paying, let your child know what you expect. Will you cut off funding if your child’s GPA drops below a certain point, or if he or she gets into serious trouble? You want to be careful not to use funding as a threat, but make it clear that you expect your money to be well spent. If you are paying for part of your child’s education, communicate clearly about who pays for what.
  • Communicate about alcohol. Binge drinking is a huge problem on college campuses. While preaching to your college-age kid is unlikely to be effective, make sure they go off to college armed with an understanding of the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption.
  • Communicate about visits home. When your child comes home for visits, what expectations and rules will there be? Here are some questions to think about when your college student comes home.

How to Cope When Children Leave Home

Children leaving home is a natural part of life and is not all bad. Many married couples begin to enjoy the sudden freedom of being able to take time for themselves and each other. After some time has passed, parents also begin to enjoy a new and different relationship with a child who is on her way to becoming an adult.

Firstly, allow yourself to feel sad. Sending your child to college can feel a little bit like grieving. Children often don’t understand how connected parents feel to them, and how much a parent’s identity is tied up in a child. Like all grief, you need some time to come to terms with this, especially if you now have an empty nest.

Secondly, don’t feel guilty if you feel relieved. Being a teenager is a huge responsibility and a source of headaches and stress. Relief over your teenager’s departure doesn’t make you an unloving parent. It makes you human.

The best way to cope with the empty nest syndrome is to keep a positive attitude and to stay busy and active in the community. Here are some suggestions for battling empty nest syndrome.

Start a new job

  • Volunteer
  • Write that novel
  • Pursue hobbies
  • Take a course or further education
  • Take time for friends and self
  • Enjoy special time for spouse and marriage
  • Take a vacation
  • Remodel the house

Wrapping Up

Mothers whose identity is strongly tied to being a parent may experience empty nest syndrome when their child or children go off to college.

Empty nest syndrome can cause feelings of sadness, abandonment, and a lack of purpose.

Parents should be conscious of their balance between connection and intrusion, stay out of academic issues, clarify expectations for financial support, communicate about alcohol consumption, and establish guidelines for visits home.

Battling empty nest syndrome starts with allowing oneself to feel sad and not feel guilty about feeling relieved.

Other recommended coping strategies include pursuing hobbies, taking health and human services online courses for further education, engaging with friends and oneself, enjoying special time with spouse/marriage, taking vacations, and remodeling the house.

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