The not-so-funny side of Home Alone

By Sarah Rossbach

One September day, when my near-twin children were entering high school, I ran into a distressed, grief-stricken acquaintance at the local farm market. In tears, the normally perky, upbeat woman shared that her youngest had just left for college. She was an empty-nester and life as a mother was over. While her child was adjusting to the freedom and challenges of college life, she was mourning the end of family dinners, high-school tennis matches, and a house full of laughing teenagers. One look at the abandoned bedroom, the discarded racket and lunch box and it was too much to bear. Now retired from her role/job as an active parent, she had contracted a full-blown case of Empty Nest Syndrome: The helicopter parent had landed with a lonely thud and an empty tank. 

Fast-forward a few years. My husband and I dropped off our two at their respective New England colleges—as luck would have it—a day apart. In spite of loving our children dearly, I was determined to avoid my acquaintance’s pitfall. I reminded my spouse that we’d had a lot of fun before we had children and suggested viewing their absence as a sort of second honeymoon. He didn’t quite carry me over the threshold, but we found that being home alone together gave us more quality time for each other. While we weren’t exactly celebrating that we were “free at last,” we took solace that the kids were in college, a parenting job well-done.

Everyone has “helpful” suggestions on parenting, but how does one deal with un-parenting—losing one’s identity as a mom or dad, being on one’s own and becoming a temporarily child-free individual or couple? Wikipedia describes the Empty Nest Syndrome (ENS) as a “feeling of grief and loneliness parents may feel when their children leave home for the first time, such as to live on their own or to attend a college or university.” It is not a clinical condition, yet its symptoms can range from depression and loss of purpose to stress and anxiety about the child. Of course, for some, the departure of a “difficult” child may not come soon enough.

COPING

My father had a saying about his kids: “If you’re going to raise eagles, you have to let them fly.”  The message (I think) was his rationalization as he sadly watched us go in different directions, as well as being his way to encourage and inspire us: that separation from one’s parents was a key inaugural element to launch one’s life journey. 

I reached out to Dr. Rodger Goddard for some advice to parents whose eagles have flown the coop. Dr. Goddard is Chief Psychologist and Director of Wellness Management Services at Trinitas Regional Medical Center. (Wellness Management Services provides presentations, programs and consultation to help corporations and schools achieve their key goals.) Empty Nest Syndrome (ENS) is extremely common, he points out. In fact, as many as 30% of all Baby Boomers may experience this syndrome.  

“The range of experiences that a parent may have are extremely varied,” he explains. “A child may have moved only a block away or to the other side of the country. A child or parent may not blink an eye or one may experience very intense emotional swings during this transition. A significant number of parents struggle with ENS. The classic symptoms range from feelings of loss, depression and meaninglessness to high anxiety and intense worry.”

Dr. Goddard offers a number of strategies that can help alleviate this potentially painful and difficult time. There are two key areas that parents can work on to build skills to help get through this challenging life transition…

IMPROVE THE RELATIONSHIP

First, focus on finding ways to positively change your relationship with your child. Your child is likely to have very mixed feelings about the separation: torn between wanting to still feel protected, loved and secure, while rejecting being treated like a child. This may send a parent very mixed messages, resulting in a parent being torn between giving advice, criticism and help, and feeling mistreated and pushed away.  

Second, it is important to find a balance of contact during this time. While you want to avoid suffocating your child and giving him or her the message that they are incapable of being on their own, your child still needs your help. Figure out with your child the best form and frequency of contact; text, email, phone, visits. Avoid being too invasive at this time. This would send the message that your child cannot manage on his or her own. Yet too much distance would communicate to your child that you disapprove of their separation and independence, potentially implying you are withdrawing your love and support because they have a new place to live, a new job, a new partner, and so on. It is critical to show support and love during the transition into college, and beyond, as it can be extremely scary and anxiety-filled for a child dealing with separating from the family. In short, you may be most effective when you encourage independence, yet still show your intense love and support, and provide advice and direction when needed. Remember to not distance yourself too much no matter how much upset, anxiety, relief or sadness you are feeling in order to create a good balance. Your child needs you to be in the dual role of both a guiding, advice-giving parent and a supportive, affirming, accepting friend in the background. 

OPPORTUNITY FOR  SELF-CARE & GROWTH

You have devoted your whole life to nurturing this beautiful child and are likely to experience a loss of meaning and purpose when your child is separating. It is a wonderful time to devote yourself to something new. According to Dr. Goddard, a good antidote to the loss of meaning and purpose is to use this time to build your self-esteem and explore new meaning in your life. Supporting yourself begins with using techniques to control your anxious, worried thoughts. Learn to be calm, practice deep breathing exercises all day long.  Focus on rational thoughts and be more active. Use the time to do a life review to clarify the mission and purpose of your life and find new directions to focus what you have to give the world. 

HOME AGAIN

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should mention at this point that, having coped reasonably well with ENS, my husband and I are now faced with another challenge about which you’ve probably read or heard. As of this writing, my eagles have both come home to roost and are part of the Boomerang Generation. Parenting has become trickier, as you’re all cooped up again and you, as parent, are dealing with young adults who have tasted and enjoyed their own independence. This issue is complex. Life is much more challenging now, it is more difficult to find a job than in the past and renting or buying on one’s own is more expensive than ever. For example, my kids are working full-time, but can afford only to live at home for now. 

So Empty Nesters, you may want to hold off on converting those freed-up bedrooms into home offices or man caves. 

NOT-SO-EMPTY NEST

Somewhere around a one-third of 18-to-34-year-olds are living at home with their parents, due, in part, to financial challenges. Dr. Rodger Goddard offers these thoughts to Boomerang parents: 

  • Today, children are less mature, independent and self-reliant compared to earlier times. This may potentially be a result of Baby Boomers being overly supportive, indulging and spoiling their children, compared to past generations. As a result, many of those in their 20s are like teenagers and those in their 30s are like those in their 20s.
  • Children returning home and living with their parents can be very difficult for both parent and child. Parents are likely to want to parent the same way they did for the last 20-30 years. As the child has been away from home for the college years, anger and resentment can arise in the boomerang child who feels independent and resents being treated like a kid.  

It is best for everyone that the relationship evolves. For all to live happily under the same roof, it is critical that there is a working structure in place, that all understand their responsibilities: chores, rent, behavior and so on.  So all need to agree on a set of guiding rules: who does what, when and where. A written agreement concerning key issues—as well as a plan for the child transitioning to being on his or her own—is critical.