As summer has wound down and children are off to college for the first or last time, many parents will experience “empty nest syndrome.” Realistic expectations for this transition are helpful to the child and parent alike. The separation adjustment itself may not be as intense as it once was before cell phones and the internet, which greatly facilitate staying connected. Yet the transition is significant, and a few guidelines will prove beneficial.
The college-aged child is usually thrilled about their new life. They may experience some initial fear of the unknown and self-doubt regarding the new situation. However, this is the BIG BREAK from parents that children have been anticipating most of their teenage years. I encourage parents not to take their child’s zeal to leave home personally. Try not to feel abandoned. Developmentally, it is appropriate for the child to be differentiated and moving on with their life. The job description of a parent is to work themselves out of a job!
It is my experience that sometimes parents feel confused about their role in this changing relationship. The college-aged child conveniently wants to be an adult when it works for them, and a child when it works for them. Parents need to be aware of this tendency and not allow themselves to be manipulated. No matter how widely traveled your child might be, don’t be surprised if you receive a homesick telephone call. A little homesickness is part of the process. It is important to listen to your child’s feelings, but don’t go running off to college to rescue them or lose sleep that night. Chances are, minutes after the call, the child will have met a “new best friend” in their dorm and they are heading out for a late-night meal.
It is important for the parent and college-aged child to talk about the new ground rules of the transition. If the parent is paying for all or part of the education, the child needs to be told what the parent’s expectations are for continued support and consequences if the expectations are not met…and parents need to be consistent with the consequences. A fixed monthly allowance needs to be discussed whether the parents fund it, or the child earns their own spending money. Don’t allow yourself to feel guilty when your child tells you how much more money all the other kids at school have—that’s just part of the routine.
Time at home after being away at college can be difficult. The child has been living with other eighteen-year-olds, and their rhythm is usually quite different than the family home. Mutual respect is crucial. If you expect your child to be home for a meal, clearly communicate that to them. If you expect them to make their bed daily, even though you have expected it since they were five years old, it probably will be necessary to reiterate it. Curfews are hard to enforce when your child has been living on their own. A reasonable compromise is that your child lets you know where they will be, is cell-phone accessible at all times, and certainly does not drink and drive. Clear, consistent communication with your college-aged child facilitates the transition into a healthy parent, adult-child relationship.
Once the parent has laid these guidelines with the child, then it is time to focus on themselves. It clearly is “new behavior” to channel the energy of 18 years of hands-on parenting into a new direction, so it may feel awkward at first, or even selfish. But, trust me, you will get used to it. I encourage clients to allow themselves to daydream and envision what they would be doing if they could do anything they wanted. Chances are your daydreams hold the key to creating a life of choice in this new phase of your life. So, empty nester, start brainstorming and see what new dimensions of life await you!
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