Letting Go Can Be Painful Some Advice for Parents Grappling with Empty-nest Syndrome

Every year at this time, I think about the popular tongue-in-cheek Staples ad that ran for years on television, where a parent is depicted happily shopping for all their child’s back-to-school needs with the popular Christmas song “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” ringing out in the background.
On the more serious side, packing up and leaving home for freshman year at college can be a life-changing experience for many students, but it can also be a bittersweet time for parents who may not be singing about their newfound independence.
Many parents experience a general feeling of sadness and loss — often referred to as ‘empty-nest syndrome’ — when one or more of their children comes of age and leaves home. And if you are unprepared for this life-changing event, then you may take it quite hard.
It’s entirely normal to experience strong emotions at the time of such a profound life transition. The day-to-day experience of caring for a child is an organizing principle in a parent’s life and provides parents with a powerful sense of meaning and purpose.
One of the many difficult things about being a parent is that your children are constantly changing and you have to continually adjust to their changing developmental needs. This particular time is perhaps the most challenging and momentous, with parents needing to abruptly let go of their caretaking and protective relationship and begin to develop a new relationship with their child as a young adult.
In addition to coping with the loss of the daily presence of one’s child, parents also find themselves re-evaluating their sense of identity, as well as contemplating their own mortality.
Parents usually get through this difficult time without too much suffering. But it certainly helps for parents to prepare themselves for these feelings and to get emotional support during the transition by talking honestly to their spouse, friends, and family members. It’s worth trying to talk with your college-bound child about it as well. Remember, however, they may be dealing with their own anxiety about leaving home by pushing you away or avoiding you. Try to have a thick skin with this.
Unfortunately, the stress of this transition may be a triggering event for problems such as depression in either a parent or the young adult. Depression is a condition in which there is pervasive sadness, inability to experience pleasure, and loss of functioning that persists for greater than two weeks. It may be accompanied by difficulty sleeping, low energy, and appetite changes. People with depression should seek professional treatment as soon as possible.
On the other end of this transition, parents should remember that there is much to look forward to. You are not losing your children. Rather, they are changing, and you will be developing a new relationship with them. As they mature further, you have an opportunity to establish a positive and meaningful relationship with them as adults. The time for actively influencing or controlling their lives is over, yet you may be lucky enough to become a trusted advisor and to take pleasure in their successes.
Some couples also experience challenges in their marital relationship during this time of transition.
Relationship needs may be neglected for years while the focus is on raising the kids. When the kids leave home, couples may need to get to know each other again. This can be a painful process, but it can also be a time to renew the relationship and begin a new life’s journey together. In fact, some couples find marital counseling to be extremely helpful during this time.
And, in today’s modern world, don’t be a social-networking technology curmudgeon. Get on Facebook. Send and receive texts with embedded pictures and video. Learn how to use Twitter … it’s not as silly as you think. Learn how to use the communication media in which your kids are immersed. The world is truly made smaller by technology, but you must keep pace with its rapidly changing media if you want to stay connected.  v
Dr. Barry Sarvet is vice chair of Psychiatry and chief of Child Psychiatry at Baystate Medical Center. For more information about Baystate Children’s Hospital, visit baystatehealth.org/bch. For more information about Baystate Medical Center, visit baystatehealth.org/bmc.