Published on July 11, 2011 by Linda Walter, LCSW in Life Without Anxiety via Psychology Today
Congratulations, you have raised your son/daughter in such a way that they can leave home to live on their own. Perhaps they're going off to college, perhaps getting married, or perhaps moving into their own place to start a job. No matter what the reason, you are cutting the apron strings. What mixed emotions this causes!
Almost everyone faces this new transition with anxiety, stress, and joy. We don't know whether to celebrate our new found freedom or cry at feared loneliness. We might feel happy and sad, confident and scared, optimistic and full of dread all at the same time. This array of feelings may be for yourself, your child, or both you and your child. Having all of these mixed emotions is perfectly normal. But, it doesn't have to be a crisis, it is a stage in life, a transition that most of us hope we and our children will reach. After all, when a child is ready to leave home it usually means that we, as parents, have been successful in raising them to be self-sufficient and independent - one of the most important jobs a parent has.
Try to think of other times when you have let your child go off on their own and how each of those incidents has taught both of you important lessons. Perhaps the first time you let your child go off on their own was when they went to sleep at their grandparents the first time, or when they went on a play date without you, or went to nursery school, or kindergarten. There were many times throughout their lives when you let them venture out on their own, armed with the tools and values you gave them to be successful. Perhaps those times went smoothly, perhaps there were some problems. But, the fact that you let your child go off without you again means that you trusted them to have learned from previous experiences or to struggle through present experiences and come out comfortably on the other side.
All of us deal with stress and anxiety in different ways. And this is a stressful time. For some, it is a time when we shift our full time focus from our children to our aging parents. For others, it may be a time when we're preparing for retirement. Either way, we need to be prepared to face the stress head on with a plan at the ready.
When your child leaves home your job as a parent changes. You go from being a physically present parent to a more remote one. You still have the job of parenting, it's just in a different way. You may no longer hear the day to day details of your child's life, you may no longer be able to tell their daily moods, whether they're happy or sad. This is certainly an adjustment. But, a necessary adjustment, one that is in the best interests of your child.
Feeling the emotions of an "empty nester" is not just isolated to mothers. Men also go through their own feelings about this transition in life. Their reactions may be different and their reasons for their mixed emotions may not mirror their spouse's, but, they too will go through an adjustment period.
What steps should you take to survive this time of transition?
Stress and anxiety can have the effect of making us short tempered, depressed, self- absorbed. This may lead to arguments with your spouse. It's important to remember that both of you are making an adjustment that seems difficult. The best thing you can do for each other is to listen, be a shoulder to lean on, and be supportive. Understand that you are going through this stage in life together and that it will help to be there for each other. For those of you who are single parents, ask friends and relatives to be there for you for the added support you will need. Try to find others in a similar stage of life with whom to talk.
Listen to your child and what they may and may not need of you. See what their idea is of how they see this new relationship with you. It's important to be supportive and encouraging of them. Let them know that even though this is new for them, you believe they can be successful in this new phase of their life. You want to try to connect with them in an adult to adult manner.
Now is the time to take care of you, to nurture yourself in whatever ways feel good to you. You may want to join an exercise class, learn something new (painting, an instrument, etc.), connect with old friends, make new friends, go back to school, get a job, volunteer, or learn a new language. There are so many things you can do for yourself, all it takes is sitting down and thinking about it. You can also get involved in projects you have been putting off for a while. Projects like getting your home organized, planning a trip, making something.
Try to reconnect with your spouse in ways that you couldn't when there was a child living at home. Go on dates, take a class together, have discussions that don't revolve around your child. If you're single, you may want to develop relationships with the opposite sex or spend more time socializing with friends.
If you find that you can't shake "the blues", that you're having trouble sleeping or are sleeping too much, have no appetite or are eating too much, or don't feel like getting out of bed, it's best to make an appointment with a therapist. Perhaps you need a few individual sessions or to join a support group.
When a child leaves home it marks the beginning of a new phase of life, not only for them, but for their parents also. Seize the time to develop yourself in new ways so that you may look forward to what's ahead. Above all, give yourself a break, allow yourself to feel sad, happy, optimistic, and/or scared, whatever emotions you feel. And remember, you are not alone!