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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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