How Children and Parents Navigate the Empty Nest Syndrome

The youngest child of a couple I know gave his parents a furry new kitten when he left home for college. Perhaps he thought he needed to replace himself and the cat made a good substitute. Actually, that cat became the bane of my friends’ existence, hampering travel plans and shedding fur everywhere. What their son was doing was leaving them with a transitional object to ease his parents through the transition known as the “empty nest syndrome.” He may also have been assuaging unconscious guilt he had for being the child that emptied the nest

The empty nest syndrome is a term that has come to describe the feelings of sadness and loss that many parents, particularly women whose identity centers on child-raising, feel when their young adult children leave home for the first time. It marks a profound transition in family life. As “empty nest” implies, parents are looking at the end of the intense child-rearing task that dominated the couple’s life for a good twenty years. There can be strong ambivalent feelings. Parents can feel rueful, sad and nostalgic. Rueful that there were things they never got to experience or give their children. Nostalgic about that baby, toddler, child and teenager that is suddenly a young woman or man. They also feel great pride and excitement.

The children have powerful feelings of loss and excitement too. They are leaving behind their home and a circle of friends through whom they started to develop an identity separate from their family. As eager as they are to start their young adulthood they may also be nervous and fearful. How will they make new friends? How will they adjust to living intimately with roommates who are complete strangers? Are they ready for the challenges of learning and living away from family and friends?

For both parents and children the transition of emptying the nest can recall earlier times when emotional and physical growth meant moving from dependence to independence. Often the stress of those transitions was relieved by the comforting presence of a “transitional object.”

A transitional object in psychological terms is a thing to which young children get attached and carry around for comfort as they begin to separate from their parents. Children’s transitional objects are usually something like a blanket or stuffed toy that reminds them of their parents. It has a familiar texture and scent. They are particularly important to a child during times of separation: going to sleep, leaving home for the day, or even when they are just stressed and cranky. Parents can feel both gratitude and fury at their children’s attachment to these objects: gratitude when their child is instantly comforted when united with their “blankie” or bear, fury if that object is lost or left behind.

Children departing for college often take transitional objects for their college room: pictures, favorite sports items like a football or softball glove, stuffed animals, pillows, blankets or quilts from home, or from their room.

We never outgrow our attachments to these things and can indeed find them very useful in other transitions in life. One of my children who loved his baby blanket down to its last shreds recently requested an old throw blanket from home for his second post-college apartment. Older adults retain special things to help them connect their past to their present existence. When my elderly mother becomes confused in her assisted living home, picture albums and furniture that she has lived with for sixty-odd years help orient her.

Direct conversations between parents and departing children clarify ambivalent feelings about the departure. Coming up with ideas for transitional objects that both parents and children can treasure is one way to express these feelings. Puppies and kittens may not be what parents want from their kids. Parents may want to throw a party and take lots of pictures to frame later. Parents need to be sensitive to the fact that their kids might want some familiar objects from a favorite room in the house. They may even want a parent’s old t-shirt or hat that will evoke a special connection to that parent. Parents might want to hang onto that old soccer jersey.

If the child is leaving home for the first time it is important to establish how and when to communicate. Parents may want to hear from their kids on a regular basis, say once a week. This can be comforting to both parties but also can be a burden. After everybody gets used to the separation longer intervals will probably suffice. Flexibility is key. It’s important if a call is missed to follow-up with one soon, even if it’s only a supportive message.

Here’s a word of comfort from a young man who remembered his experiences talking to anxious parents during his first months at college, “If you get a distressed call from your child and then don’t hear again for a week don’t panic. He or she has probably made a new friend soon after venting their feelings.” His advice to young students is to remember to call when you are fine as well as when you are down.

Don’t forget the rewards of e-mailing. If parents aren’t e-mail savvy, there’s no time like the present to get on board. You may soon find your kids “IM-ming” you. I’ll be talking about that in my next column.

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