How to deal with ’empty nest syndrome’ when children leave for school

A psychologist shares tips on how to deal with empty nest anxiety.  (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo)

A psychologist shares tips on how to deal with empty nest anxiety. (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo)

Tapashi RabeyaSam’s only son, he is only 17, but because he started school early, he will leave his home in New York City at the end of the summer to attend college about seven hours away in Buffalo. For Rabeya, a divorced single mother who immigrated from Small Heath, England, some 18 years ago, Sam’s move marks not only her introduction to empty nesting, but also the first time she’s lived on her own. And while she’s excited about the friends, experiences and opportunities that await her son — “I’m going to live vicariously through him,” she says — she, too, is excited about the changes to come.

“The closer you get, it can get daunting,” Rabeya tells Yahoo Life. “I’m trying not to think about myself too much, but I feel like a big empty hole in my chest. He’s my only son. I’ve invested everything in him.”

As graduations begin and young adults head off to college or other new adventures away from home, parents like Rabeya are experiencing what the clinical psychologist Monica Vermani calls an “emotional roller coaster”.

“Empty nest syndrome is real,” she says, explaining that many parents can “feel lost” when their role as primary caregiver changes and the child who has so long relied on them for survival no longer needs that level of support.

“You spend so much time and energy parenting that you lose parts of your individuation and you lose parts of your connection with your partner,” adds Vermani. “And when your child goes to school, it’s about feeling that change of, Okay, I’ve gone from giving myself to this kid and helping to raise him with the values ​​to be self-sufficient, and now I don’t know who I am without them..”

Trust that your child is ready

Given that instinctive caretaker role, it’s also natural for parents to feel concerned not only about the uncertainty that lies ahead but also about the challenges their children might face. While Vermani points out that there are advantages to modern life, such as technology that means your child is just a text or FaceTime call away, no matter how far the distance, the pandemic and recent periods of social unrest They have added a layer of complexity. to standard concerns about, for example, getting good grades or making new friends. They’re safe? How is your mental health? What kind of future lies ahead?

As parents, it’s important to offer support when needed without trying to control everything. A little trust goes a long way.

“The situation is always difficult for parents,” says Vermani. “We raised these children who depended on us to survive, and now they want to be individuals who are independent of us. So it’s about us also cutting the cord, working on our own anxiety, and trusting that we’ve given them the tools and the skills and values ​​to our children so that they can be good human beings who contribute to society and live their own lives.As parents, we must always remember that our children are in our company so that we provide them with the tools and skill set. be good guys.”

Vered DeLeeuwTwice empty nesters and two daughters at university, she recalls a line from a book for parents by British child psychologist Penelope Leach, to the effect that “your job as a parent is to get out of the picture, slowly.”

It’s a sentiment DeLeeuw has always found “powerful.” But while she didn’t fear her oldest daughter would be ready for college life on the other side of the country, it was the youngster’s absence that had DeLeeuw struggling with feelings of anxiety followed by a few months of “deep sadness” after the move. . . She remembers crying every time she passed her daughter’s empty room.

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“You lose part of yourself when a child moves away,” says DeLeeuw.

However, over time, she began to adjust to her daughter not being there; “People are more resilient than they think,” says DeLeeuw. And despite her anticipation that she would go through those emotions again when her youngest daughter went off to college, officially cementing her and her husband as empty nesters, it turned out to be a “much better” transition. easier,” she says.

Leaning into new roles

The loss of that long-held caretaker role can send many parents into a panic. But Vermani sees it as an opportunity to re-identify who you are and make the most of this new time. It could involve traveling, volunteering, changing careers, or pursuing a passion that has been on the back burner when parenting took precedent. For DeLeeuw, having time to reconnect with her husband was “freeing,” and she can now accompany him on business trips she’s missed for years due to her responsibilities at home.

Although Rabeya is single, she found a new friend before her son moved to school: her first non-family roommate. “We have girl time on the couch, I’ve never experienced that in my life,” she marvels, renting a room from a flight attendant at her New York City home. In addition to a new company, she also has a new business venture. Rabeya recently opened the Hybrid Vintage Consignment Shop in Brooklyn, a labor of love that she sees as an exciting use of her energy and time as an empty nester.

“I have given birth to what I feel is a new baby,” she says.

find support

The empty nest life can be exciting, but as with any change, it’s also daunting. Vermani says it’s important for parents to give each other grace if they’re struggling during this time.

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“Be kind to yourself,” she says. “What you’re feeling is very common and you shouldn’t feel guilty, ashamed or weak for feeling this way. Feelings of sadness and anxiety during this transition phase of life are completely normal.”

Empty nester support groups can help, but parents who are overwhelmed by feelings of sadness or anxiety should consider seeking out a mental health professional, she advises.

Stay connected from afar

Planning family outings or one-on-one get-togethers before a child leaves home is a good way to bond and make the most of the time that remains, although parents should keep in mind that their children may also have social obligations with friends around them. that they want to serve.

Once school has started, Vermani advises finding a way to stay in touch without being overbearing. A weekly check-in gives parents something to look forward to and will hopefully quell the need to constantly call. He also recommends that parents avoid obsessing over their children’s social networks. Parents need to make it clear that they are available to provide support as their young adults embark on this new chapter, while also respecting their independence and self-sufficiency.

“Let them set up your new phase of your life on their terms,” ​​says Vermani. “Take their example. Let them show you how much or how little support they need.

“Enjoy and be proud to see your child move forward in life,” he adds. “Remind yourself how important this changing phase of life was to you, and show your child that you have faith in her abilities, enough faith to allow her autonomy and freedom to grow and thrive in her new roles and routines.”

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