How to Respond to Empty Nest Syndrome

Updated: Aug. 28, 2020 at 12:21 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - Sending children off to college requires growth and adjustment, and not just for the students.

“It’s a feeling. When you go one way, and they go the other,” author Mary Dell Harrington said. “Even now, I get teary thinking about it.”

More than a decade later, author Mary Dell Harrington still remembers dropping her oldest child off for college as if it happened yesterday. The mother of two co-founded the parenting website Grown & Flown and co-wrote the book of the same name because of a frustrating lack of resources for the challenges of parenting older children. Challenges like Empty Nest Syndrome.

“In my case we were really involved in the school. And then all of that sort of scaffolding of experts that you’ve sort of relied on through the years kind of melt away.”

Empty Nest Syndrome isn’t recognized by medical professionals as a clinical diagnosis. However, Dr. Virginia Wickline says that what you’re feeling is still valid and backed by science.

“So there are protective reasons that babies bond to parents or caregivers and vice versa. It’s something that helps us survive, helps our brains to develop,” said Dr. Wickline, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Georgia Southern University. “And so that bond is so important that of course it makes sense that when life systems change and that status changes we have to re-adapt. It is a bit of grieving. So you can think of it as a loss of that relationship in one form or fashion that has to start again in a new way.”

Both Harrington and Wickline say that your reactions can vary based on many factors.

“It is very different with each kid,” Harrington said. “I think because your family dynamics change as one child leaves, and then the next child leaves.”

“When they leave that physical space or empty nest, for some it is a bit of a relief. That phase of life where I have to be that on spot caregiver all the time helps them to relax and enjoy their adult children more,” Dr. Wickline said. “For others, having them out of the space is stressful. ’I don’t know what to do with myself now that this phase has ended.”

So what do you do? The experts we spoke to say the key has having a plan in place.

“I think it’s a really good time for parents to think about, ’How do I want to say goodbye to this phase and not necessarily to this person?’ and celebrate the new journey that we have,” Dr. Wickline said.

“It really does help if you have a definite plan of when you know you’re going to see your freshman again. The second thing is to have a good understanding of how you’re going to communicate,” Harrington said. “Sometimes parents are wanting to text all the time or call all the time. You know, they just want to know so much how their kid is doing. They just can’t help themselves, but it could be that you call or you text at the most inconvenient time, you know, your child could be in class.”

Whether it’s you or a loved one struggling with empty nest syndrome, show some compassion.

“What parents need to know is they should just go easy on themselves,” Harrington said. “I mean, this can be an incredibly difficult experience, and if they feel pain, just realize that that’s part of the deal, and they shouldn’t feel that they shouldn’t feel that pain.”

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