As August approaches, the stores are filled with not only cute lunchboxes, brightly colored markers and stacks of notebooks, but also all those special items needed to outfit a college dorm room. For those parents who are helping their teen purchase shower caddies and XL twin sheets, it’s hard not to gaze at the crayons and pencil boxes and wonder where all years have gone! And for those who are sending their only or last child off to school, this can be a time of mixed emotions. For years we have juggled our schedules to attend concerts, games or pick up our child from school. Suddenly, juggling is in the rearview mirror. While the idea of having more time can be liberating, it can also be a bit sad and unnerving as we make the shift to the empty nest. Not only does our child leave behind high school friends, we might lose contact with those other parents we shared time with at games, on committees and other things related to our children. Plus, just as our teen might be nervous about their new adventure, we might be both nervous for them and ourselves! Added to that, reaching this milestone is a time when many reflect on how fulfilled they are in their own life – in relationships, career and home life and that can stir up a lot of emotions. There are tools and strategies, however, that can make the adjustment easier and help you thrive and not just survive in your empty nest.
How to THRIVE and not just survive your empty nest
Take time for yourself and time to adjust. It’s no secret that most parents do not have time for themselves between all the demands of a busy life. This is your time! Make a list of things that you enjoy doing such as hobbies, friends, trips, entertainment…whatever you have had on the “someday” list. Get out your calendar and start to schedule time to get started checking items off the list. Also, take time to adjust. It’s a strange feeling when the house becomes quiet and your grocery shopping list shrinks. Schedule some fun activities or even a trip for the first few weeks as you adjust to the change.
Honor your emotions (and your teen’s also!) Transition is a time of mixed emotion for most people. It is common to have feelings ranging from excitement, joy and pride to fear, sadness and anger sometimes all mixed together. Even positive change can cause a grief process. Your child will also be experiencing a range of emotions and it can be quite unsettling to get a distressed call during the first few weeks. The more you can process your own feelings without drowning in them or numbing to avoid, the better you will be able to remain calm for your child. Journaling about your feelings or talking about them with a supportive person can be very helpful.
Redefine your role. From the day our child was born our primary role has been as a parent. As a parent, you might have been a scout leader, team parent, coach, sideline cheerleader, school volunteer…as well as a nurturer, provider, driver etc. Of course, you have other roles apart from your child as well. Now it is time to shift the focus to new roles even though you might feel lost or unsure about what’s next. Look at your strengths, your talents, your dreams and begin to explore the possibilities.
Imagine the next step. Whether finding a new passion, reinvigorating relationships with a partner or friends, taking a class, getting a job or switching careers is on the horizon, visioning the next step will help reframe the loss into a new beginning. While it can be hard at first, it’s a great time to explore different options and see what you like and don’t like.
Value your relationships. When we are busy with children, relationships with a partner, friends and family are often hard to nurture and grow. Many of our friends have been other parents we see on the sidelines, in volunteer roles or at our child’s school. Just as our child will not see their high school friends as often, we might not see many of our school connections either or at least as often. Relationships need tending and this is a perfect time to reconnect with those who you enjoy and let go of those you don’t. Sadly, this is a time when many marriages fizzle for many reasons. Discovering what you like to do together and making your relationship a priority is a great way to nurture and grow together.
Embrace the ride. Again, this is a process. Just as it was a process when you first brought your baby home, it’s a process moving to the next phase of life. It can be fun if we let go of expectations about what we should be doing or focusing on what our child is doing from a helicopter view. Let the process unfold and enjoy the lessons learned along the way. It’s actually very helpful for our child’s adjustment if they know we are enjoying our time as well. Thanksgiving will be here before you know it!