Empty Nester? Forge a New Path to Happiness


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My youngest graduated this past June. I welled up with tears on and off throughout the ceremony. These were the “happy-sad” kind, which you are probably familiar with — tears conjured by a wide range of conflicting emotions.

Graduation this year was not just a milestone for my daughter. It was one for me as well. This is because a good deal of my time over the last 15 years was spent volunteering for our local schools in various capacities. An office at home and a flexible schedule allowed me to be involved in countless ways, as an honor society advisor, PTA president and booster association president, to name a few. When my daughter reached for her diploma, it marked the end of a chapter in both of our lives.

The months prior to the big day had me thinking about my new role as a parent. My son, now halfway through college, has already developed a different kind of relationship with me. He occasionally asks for advice, but he also has a life that is separate from mine. With both of my children off on their own, I can’t help but think, “What comes next?”

Does the parenting role change? What is the best way for an empty nester to forge forward? Should one find a new hobby, explore the globe or clean out the basement? Here is some expert advice.

Your New Role

Your role has changed, not ended. Your kids will need you — at some level — even when they’re 40.

“Often the move to college marks the most distinctive change for a child becoming an adult,” says Kim Blackham, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and owner and director of Summit View Family Therapy in Winston-Salem. “There is usually a natural pulling away that happens in the teen years to prepare for this move into adulthood, but it still comes as a real shift.”

Allow your child to navigate the world solo without too much interference.

“Kids going away to college need to know their parents have confidence in their ability to make it on their own, as well as assurance that there is a safe place for them if needed,” Blackham points out. “This isn’t the same as ‘You can come and live in my basement and play video games until you’re 30,’ but rather an assurance that there is a place that they belong and are valued.”

Blackham advises parents to provide counsel, but to be careful about offering an abundance of unsolicited advice.

“Sometimes unsolicited advice communicates a lack of confidence in their ability to solve their own problems,” she cautions.

Be aware that your child is used to setting his own rules while living away from home and has gotten used to a different lifestyle.

“It’s key to recognize that when your child returns home during breaks, they are returning as an adult, not as a child,” Blackham says, adding that while college-age children should respect being back in their parents’ home, parents need to be cognizant of the natural shift in the relationship.

I’ve found that explaining expectations works best. For instance, if I ask my son to text me when he gets back to the dorm after a visit home or to let me know which friends he is camping with, I usually couple the request with something like, “Humor me. If I know what your plans are or that you are back safely, I can continue with my day.” Your adult child will realize your inquiries are not about mistrust or a lack of confidence in him.

A Lifestyle Change

Since your daily responsibilities of parenting have waned, you’ll have more time to delve into those things you’ve put off time and again, such as a home renovation or long-awaited trip.

For couples, there can be a renewed energy to their marriage.

“When all the children finally graduate from high school, a life adjustment needs to take place,” says Donald K. Freedheim, professor emeritus of psychology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. “When the kids are out of the everyday picture, it is time to renew what was lost when they were in the home.”

Freedheim describes this lifestyle change as an opportunity for romance and spontaneous activities. He adds that couples who make the effort may experience a more enriched marriage.

“One parent may have to take the lead in guiding the other more reluctant one to change,” Freedheim says. The reward: a renewed excitement about your relationship and a chance to do those things you hadn’t had time for in the past.

My husband and I have already made several plans to do those things we didn’t have time for while running to swim meets or attending jazz concerts. Of course, there are occasional college events to attend as well. It truly is a joy to see that familiar smile on your child’s face when he spots you in the crowd.

Myrna Beth Haskell is a feature writer, columnist and author of “LIONS and TIGERS and TEENS,” which offers expert advice and support for conscientious parents. Learn more at myrnahaskell.com.

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