When children leave the family “nest”, parents feel mixed emotions; both proud and satisfied, yet unsure, sad, and nervous. “Launching” is a phase in the family lifecycle when parents watch their children move on in life; often, off to college and out of the family home. Parents themselves begin experiencing midlife decisions, contemplating their own futures when the pressures of parenthood become less pronounced.
With children no longer physically present on a daily basis, what does life look like? For many it’s heartbreak. As retirement advisors, we commonly see parents face this challenge. Here are our best suggestions about how to handle the pain of separating from your kids when they go to college.
DON’T BE AFRAID TO GRIEVE
The first thing is to acknowledge that it’s okay to feel grief about your children leaving for college. You may think it’s selfish to feel this way, and that the only emotion you’re allowed is a positive one. And indeed we don’t recommend making your child feel bad about leaving. The last thing your child needs to hear at this time is a guilt trip. It’s not their job to deal with your emotional issues.
Instead, find people to talk to about how you feel. You’re not the first parent to experience this sense of loss and sorrow. Find support in others who have gone through this and are willing to listen and offer comfort.
If you want to cry and grieve, then do it. Allow your emotions to take hold instead of suppressing them. In other words, handle the emotion instead of sweeping it under the rug. Get it right out in the open. It’s the first step in moving on and rectifying the situation.
TWEAK YOUR JOB DESCRIPTION FROM PARENT TO COACH
It’s an amazing feeling to brag about your child’s admission to a prestigious university. But, when the time comes to drop junior off at her dorm, inevitably, worry sets in.
What’s there to worry about? The hard part is over, right?
In many ways the battle has just begun. Recently, many stories have been shared about the dangers and threats on college campuses. How do we ensure our kids are protected? Beyond safety concerns, we all know that it’s easy to get distracted when mom and dad aren’t around to keep tabs. How do we ensure our kids are achieving their full potential?
A change in roles means a significant realignment of family priorities. For years as parents, we’ve supervised, micro-managed, and organized the day-to-day everything for our kids. Jessica Colebrook, Academic Counselor at University of Denver, suggests that this relationship ought to change after high school graduation. She noted that a successful transition to college requires parents to reshape their roles to more like that of a coach, offering advice and support from the sidelines. As teenagers morph into college students, parents ought to give up direct control and, instead, interact with their young adult children in a collaborative manner.
Think back to your own college years – for most of us, it was a time in life of discovery and exploration. Your parents weren’t around anymore to control how you spend your own time. Don’t you think your kids feel the same way?
You’re still their parent, but the job description has been tweaked. Look at your role now as less the protector, disciplinarian, and provider and more the coach or consultant. It’s a promotion for both you and for your child!
THE RIGHT WAY TO LET GO
Let go. But do it the right way.
Letting go is not a bad thing. In fact it is quite essential to do because you have to give your child the freedom to join clubs, seek out internships, and, eventually, find a full time job. Isn’t that the point of college? Let your child discover him or herself.
You have to walk a thin line. You don’t want to stifle your child’s ability to find his or her own identity as young adults and learn the life lessons they’ll need for the “real world.” Yet at the same time, they’re still not fully formed individuals. You still need to offer support, guidance, and protection – but at a distance.
A big way you can guide your child is on matters about campus safety. While campuses do provide some basic guidance, they’re not as involved as a parent. We’d advise you to have real conversations with your child about things like being aware of her surroundings (especially at nighttime) or making intelligent decisions at social events. For example, I attended University of Illinois, which is a very large Big 10 school. Oftentimes, I’d have exams at nighttime, ending at 9 or 10 PM. It is not safe for an 18 year old female to be walking a mile or more home alone that late at night. As a parent, this is a great opportunity to tell your child to walk home with a friend or take a cab.
FINDING LOVE IN OTHER PLACES
For decades you’ve thought of yourself as “mom and dad,” and dealing with an empty nest is jolting. Parents confronted with this sense of loss could be vulnerable to depression, identity crises, and marital conflicts. With your child settled, it’s time to focus on yourself and your spouse. Or, if you are a single parent, it can be a time to get back into the dating scene. A little love can do wonders.
In fact, a study by the National Council on Family Relations actually highlighted that marital satisfaction actually improves when the children leave home. With more free time, couples often feel motivated to undertake new challenges and opportunities. Folks are feeling as though they are healthy, energetic, and, frankly, that they’re not “too old” to pursue passions.
THE THIRD PERIOD
This is an emotional time when sense of relief is over taken by newfound insecurity. I like to refer to this as the “third period” of life. Does this present an opportunity to downshift or reboot your life? What are the personal and financial ramifications of these choices? This is a truly incredible time if you choose to make it so. It begins by having a profound understanding of what is meaningful to you.
- Colebrook, Jessica. “When Children Leave for College” University of Denver, August 2016.
- “Psychological Well-Being in the Postparental Stage: Some Evidence from National Surveys” Glenn, Norval D. University of Texas at Austin, February 1975. http://www.jstor.org/stable/351034?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents