Adjusting to an Empty Nest: Now What?
There may come a point in time when your child(ren), family members or dependents decide to leave the family home, prompting shifts in daily routines, activities, responsibilities, and home dynamics.
Children may decide to leave the family home due to a multitude of reasons- career changes and new opportunities, a desire to live on their own or with a roommate or partner, feeling emotionally and financially ready, acclimating to a divorce and change in parental relationship, and/or to go away for college or an opportunity abroad among other reasons.
With September approaching, many parents may be facing an ‘empty nest’ for the first time when their only or last child leaves for college.
What does Empty Nest Mean?
The term empty nest syndrome is often used to describe the emotional aspects associated with this type of major life transition, in which the family dynamics and relationships adapt to these new shifts. It is not uncommon for a caregiver, who has a strong bond or attachment to their child, to experience an otherwise ambiguous loss.
While rationally you can understand that your child or loved one is still physically alive, their physical presence is missed. Depending on the circumstance, some parents who have spent a great deal of time with their child(ren) over the course of 17-18 years may experience sudden feelings of sadness, emptiness, loss/grief, and loneliness.
5 Changes to Consider as you Begin Adapting to this New Role and Life Transition:
1. Free Time
Anticipate that all of the time you may have spent over the course of the last 17-18 years may have been focused on addressing the needs of your child(ren) and less focused on answering the question “What is it that I need in this moment and how can I fulfill that need?” Having free time may lead to feelings of being lost, unsure, empty and bored. Allow yourself a chance to acclimate to this time and ease into the idea that you have a chance to explore and get to know yourself.
2. Attending to Your Emotions
Validate any feelings that may come up for you. Whether they surface initially or if they come through unexpectedly throughout the day. Recognize that feeling lost, empty, sad, lonely and anxious all make sense given your recent transition and that these emotions will take time to soothe. Allow yourself the time and space to express these feelings, whether it is crying alone in the shower, or during an individual therapy session- let people help you!
3. Managing vs. Mentoring
As your child leaves the family home, it may be time to adjust your role as the parent. Allowing your child to make their own decisions and learn from the consequences of their own choices is a skill in trust, faith and patience that parents are all called to practice and model for their children. Consider what it would be to take a step back from managing your child’s day-to-day activities and tasks and step into a mentoring role.
Also Consider questions you might ask vs. statements you might command or instruct to your child. Instead of providing an answer to your child’s crisis or concern when they call, consider ways to help them think through and problem solve for themselves.
Your child may come to you feeling overwhelmed by different opportunities and choices available to them as they adjust to school life. Reassure them that you are available to talk and provide a listening ear and guide them through their own process of decision making and what feels best for them and their goals.
4. Be Gentle and Compassionate with Yourself- You are grieving.
In the realm of grief and loss, there is no timeline that applies to everyone and this same idea applies to empty nest syndrome. The process of grieving is deeply personal and individualized. With that said, comparing yourself to other parents is not necessary as your relationship with your child is special and unique in its own way.
Be patient with yourself as you make this adjustment. You are exploring new territory without an instruction booklet or map. This will take time and that is okay. You are recreating yourself and you deserve that time to become your next best self.
5. Reconnecting with Your Values and Invest Time into Yourself
While initially experiencing the quietness of your home, the decreased conversations that you may have had with your child in the car or on the couch, or the overwhelming loneliness as you wonder about what to do next, you may, at your own pace and own timing, begin to find hope in reconnecting with your values. Asking yourself “What is important to me right now?”
Consider an interest of yours that you have not yet had the chance to pursue or a relationship that you would like to rekindle or maintain. Perhaps a book you have been meaning to read, a letter you have been wanting to write or a painting that you have been wanting to experiment with. It can feel strange and awkward to embrace the freedom of choice while also experiencing feelings of sadness, and that is ok. Remind yourself that you deserve to invest in yourself!
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