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The Empty House Syndrome

Jul 20, 2018 01:46PM ● By Staff Writer

She is leaving home.

Our first-born is headed off to college, and I’m not sure how to handle this… on a variety of levels. “The first thing I tell parents is to trust yourself that you’ve prepared your child to the best of your ability, and, in your case, Scott, to trust that your child will do her best, too,” says Lafayette psychologist Dr. Amy Cavanaugh.

I don’t want to hear these things, but Cavanaugh makes perfect sense when she reminds me that the only constant in life is change. “The relationship is changing, but you need to remind yourselves that it’s a beginning, not an end; it’s a new chapter and that can be very exciting.”

As you can no doubt sense, having that first child leave the nest is knocking me out of my comfort zone, sending me back on my heels and I’m not sure what to think. That uncertainty, adds Cavanaugh, is o.k., too. “You can have more than one feeling; it’s only natural that these feelings coexist simultaneously. You can be excited and sad and proud, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.”

It’s most important, though, that parents remember that their feelings aren’t caused by their departing children. “Don’t make the child feel responsible for your sadness,” explains Cavanaugh. “Don’t use your feelings to make them think they have to take care of you.” In many ways, there’s a grief process that parents, to varying degrees, will have to go through. “Recognize this, and allow yourself to feel and accept these feelings, that you will miss your child. Again, it’s natural and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

So how should a parent cope? 

Keeping busy, says Cavanaugh, is one place to start. “Stay focused on your work, on your regular activities.” And there’s the chance that your child going to college might be the impetus for you expanding your own horizons. “Try to use this as an opportunity to discover so much more about yourself, that you’re more than just your child’s parent.”

Don’t forget that leaving home may not be easy on your daughter or son, either. “Talk about it. Help him/her with the process, and go on the campus tour. Be present in the practical, logical things associated with your child’s move.”

Remember the uneasiness I mentioned at the start of this article? Well, the start of college—orientation, then the beginning of classes—might send your child into a spin of her/his own. “It can be a very overwhelming time, and they may call you just looking for answers and reassurances. Be glad that you’re the one receiving that call, and maybe that’s all they need, just to know that Mom or Dad can be that comfortable safe base.”

But what if they’re very upset? Ready to quit college and come home? 

“Remind them of the many times in the past that they faced hectic, stressful times and got through it,” says Cavanaugh. “Remind them of all they’ve accomplished, and that they can handle this, too.”

One final bit advice involves the words ‘letting go’ (and I’m not sure if I’m ready for this aspect, either). “Respect boundaries, and don’t be a ‘helicopter parent’ at your child’s college,” finishes Cavanaugh. “A parent that’s overly-involved and overly-responsible for their child hinders the learning experience of the child, and keeps them from truly experiencing the successes and failures that come in life.”