In a few weeks, thousands of teenagers across the country will graduate from high school.
For many of these young adults, the ritual of high school graduation is followed by an equally significant moment in their lives — attending college.
For some of them, college means they must leave their homes.
Moving away to attend college is without a doubt one of the biggest transitions that a child can experience.
It’s also an emotional time for parents.
The feelings of sadness, even grief, that come when your child moves away to attend college are perfectly normal, according to Emanuel Maidenberg, PhD, a clinical professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He is also the director of the school’s Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Clinic.
From all to nothing
The child-rearing years can be all-encompassing for parents.
The focus on children — driving them to practices, helping them with homework, cooking meals — is part of parenthood.
But these all-consuming activities make it easy for parents to get bogged down in day-to-day logistics and lose sight of their own personal wants, needs, and desires.
In other words, parents tend to lose track of who they are as individuals and who they are as a couple. And when the last child leaves the house, the adults are often left with a giant void.
This experience is often referred to as “empty nest syndrome.”
But all hope is not lost, Maidenberg noted.
When your child moves away for college, it’s an excellent opportunity for parents to take stock. Both as a couple and as individuals.
“It’s a great time review your values,” Maidenberg said.
What’s more, it’s also good practice for when retirement comes.
“It’s the same thing you’re going to have to do in 15 or 20 years,” he said. “It may not be as dramatic, but it’s an opening to revisit what interests you as a couple.”
One mother’s view of the empty nest
Lynn Downie is currently in the throes of her empty nest experience.
Both of her children are off to college. Her son is a junior at the University of Washington, and her daughter is a freshman at the University of Boulder, in Colorado.
Downie said she was primarily a stay-at-home mom. She works part time at a retail job, but the house and the children were under her charge.
Now that her daughter is gone from the house, it’s been an adjustment.
“The second one leaving was much harder,” she said. “There was always noise and activity. Now I’m trying to keep myself busy.”
She said she still works part time and is looking for full time work. She also volunteers as a court-appointed special advocate for foster children.
Downie said she hasn’t taken up any new hobbies yet, but does like to spend time walking her dogs.
“That keeps me busy,” she said.
How to cope when the nest is empty
Empty nest syndrome isn’t a clinic diagnosis.
But it is a phenomenon that parents experience when their children leave home, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Some studies have shown that severe cases of empty nest syndrome can lead to depression, anxiety, or alcoholism.
But research shows that new hobbies or new responsibilities can help parents cope.
Katie Riordan is the mother of two daughters. One graduated from college a few years ago, and the other is about to graduate this May.
She agrees that the second child leaving was much more difficult than the first child.
“I had a complete meltdown,” she said. “It was sadness and regret. Lots of regret that I didn’t enjoy it more. I had so much nostalgic recall.”
Riordan has always worked full time outside of the home and traveled nearly 50 percent of the time. So, in some sense she was used to missing her daughters.
The void really became apparent, however, when her social calendar changed. Their youngest is an avid soccer player, and she and her husband were heavily involved with the sport.
“So much of what we did was about her,” she said. “What we lost was what we had in common for so many years.”
She said these past few years have forced her to look at her own self-identity. Yoga has become a newfound passion, along with practicing mindfulness and meditation. She said the new habits have helped to shape her personal growth.
Maidenberg said Riordan is a good example of what parents should be doing. The key is allowing yourself the time to explore new routines and habits.
Once you’ve selected your new routine, don’t expect instant gratification, though. Be sure to give yourself six to eight weeks for it to take hold.
“Do it first thing in the morning and attach it to something that you already do,” he said. “You have to make space. You have to do it in spite of how you feel.”
Riordan added that over time her feelings of sadness and loss eventually went away. She credits numerous conversations with her daughters in helping with that process. It’s through those talks that she realized her job as a parent is in no way over.
“In fact I think my job as a parent has escalated,” she said. “Now they want my help with life choices, not just math.”