Coping With An Empty Nest

Dealing with change—and a certain amount of sorrow—as your child leaves for college.


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Tracey Riger with her daughter, Rachel , at Rachel’s graduation: a bittersweet milestone.

It’s back-to-school season once again. For some parents, this means scurrying to buy supplies, arrange carpools, and sign up for PTA committees or coaching. But for other moms and dads—those sending a child off to college—it means something else too: coping with feelings of sorrow and loss, intermingled with love and pride.

“Oh, I’m tearing up as we’re talking about it,” says Mishel DeCola of Mahopac, whose eldest child, Gionna, is heading off to Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut. “I was okay all through the prom and awards night, but, now, as I’m focusing on it, I feel it.” It’s not that Mishel begrudges Gionna this milestone. “I’m excited for her because she is a smart girl, and everything she does, she does well,” she stresses. “But obviously, I feel older now. And she is more mature—it’s one more step toward my children growing up and living their own lives.”

Those kinds of feelings are common among first-time college parents, says Jennifer A. Walker, PsyD, a licensed psychologist practicing in Nyack and White Plains. “I’ve known many people who’ve talked about it being almost traumatic for them and for the whole family when the oldest has gone off—the child is the first one to break the barrier and make the transition,” she says. “Parents are used to that child being a large part of the family.”

At the other end of the spectrum are those parents whose last kid is leaving the nest. For them, the change can be even more daunting. “I’ve been excited for my child to spread her wings and find her path,” says Tracey Riger of Baldwin Place, whose daughter Rachel will be attending Indiana University. “But the reality has set in that she’s going. I’m used to running to sports games—both Rachel and her older brother played varsity sports—or doing things for them anytime they needed a parent. In some ways, it’s going to be less stressful, but I’m already thinking of what I will be doing with that extra time.” 

Focusing on the future has also helped Decola. She is looking forward to hearing all the news from Gionna as her daughter navigates this new chapter of her young life. “My first thought,” she says, “is that I’m really happy for her.” 

No matter if your college-bound kid is your first or your last, you may feel down in those months following that dorm drop-off. But Walker says there are steps you can take to make it easier on yourself, and everyone else:

• Be self-aware, not ashamed of yourself. Your emotions are normal and nothing to deny. “Stop and take a few minutes each day simply to feel where you’re at,” Walker recommends. Mindfulness is healthy, and, once you acknowledge the loss you’ve experienced, you can move on to finding things that help you feel better.

• Try not to share your sorrow with your child. It’s fine to say you’ll miss him, of course. But statements like “What will I do without you?” or “I feel like I’m losing my best friend!” are best left unsaid. “That puts a lot of responsibility on the child,” Walker warns. “In a way, being your friend is not her role in life.” 

• Turn to your peers, if possible. “My daughter is part of a group of nine girls and they’re all very close,” says Tracey. “As we’re getting ready for them to go to college, the moms are getting closer, too.” Finding someone else who’s in your shoes can be a great way to get some empathy and support. A therapist can also be a good sounding board.

• Spend more time with your significant other if you have one. Admittedly, the prospect can be intimidating for couples who’ve drifted a bit in the bustle of childrearing. “There’s a joke that ‘now you get to decide if you still like each other,’ since you don’t have as many distractions and responsibilities,’” Walker notes. But it’s also a terrific opportunity to reconnect and rediscover what brought you together in the first place. Tracey, for her part, is looking forward to more together time with her husband with unbridled enthusiasm. “I’m planning to finally go on some of his business trips with him,” she says. Even if you still have other children at home, now’s a good time to get closer as a couple; you’ll feel less lost when the house truly empties out of kids.

• Concentrate on your career—or consider starting one. DeCola began working at her family’s print store a couple of years ago. While she didn’t do it specifically to have a fallback when her children leave, it’s an activity that gives her a second identity. Riger is glad for her career as a 6th grade teacher: “I have always worked hard in my job, but I think I may get involved in even more things at school now,” she says. As your child pushes ahead, it can be a chance for you to “lean in” again. It’s also a time to explore other interests and hobbies.

 Check out the online resources for your child’s new college. Many schools these days—including Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson and Vassar College in Poughkeepsie—have a place on their website just for moms and dads. You may be able to access a special parent-focused newsletter, a calendar of important dates, or parent-weekend schedules. Some schools, like Bard, even provide a forum through which parents of students can connect with one another.

• Set up a schedule for communicating. “It could be that every Sunday, you and your child have a call,” says Walker. You’ll have some predictability that way, and be able to look forward to connecting. “Just don’t make it about policing your child—saying things like ‘Did you do that paper?’ or ‘Did you speak to the professor about that math problem?’” Walker cautions. “Part of being in college is learning how to handle responsibilities like that on your own. Instead, the times you touch base should be about catching up, letting your child share what’s going on, and you saying, ‘I love you and have a great day.’”

 
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