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Is sending your child off to college as emotionally draining and anxiety ridden as parents anticipate? This rite of passage that millions of parents have experienced has a name: “The Empty Nest Syndrome.” As the theory goes, sending a child off into adulthood after years of parenting can be so distressing that the emotions trump other difficult moments of parenthood thus far—such as when children are young.

Does the term itself set parents up to be miserable? Is the launching of a child more stressful for parents than having a newborn or raising a child during the middle school years?

Science Says Empty Nest is Over-blown

The concern about parents’ well-being when their young adult heads off to college or to live independently has been exaggerated. In her comprehensive study, “How do parents react when their children leave home? An integrative review,” Genevieve Bouchard concludes, “The consequences of children’s departure on their parents is relatively positive or at least not highly negative.”

Dr. Bouchard, professor of psychology at Université de Moncton in Canada, acknowledges that variables in parental transitions such as the quality of relationship with the child, the quality of the relationship with a spouse or partner, and social norms play key roles in how a parent will experience a child’s departure. However, she adds, “when children met normative expectations about leaving, parents were less likely to report problems.” In other words, more parents in certain scenarios regarded leaving the nest as a normal part of life.

An international study, “Parenthood and happiness: a review of folk theories versus empirical evidence” also looked at the phenomenon of children leaving the nest, and found, “the effect of having adult, non-resident children on life satisfaction tends to be near zero, and sometimes even significantly positive.”

Children’s move out of the home affects fathers as well as mothers and sometimes fathers more than mothers. Because mothers, in general, are more involved in raising children (although this tradition is changing), the expectation is that mothers will be more affected when a child goes off to college. As I noted in an earlier post, empty nest is overrated, especially for women.

Arizona State University's psychology professor Suniya Luthar and postdoctoral researcher Lucia Ciciolla examined mothers’ reactions to childrearing from infancy through adult children leaving the home. They discovered that contrary to what most believe, it is not the departure to college, but rather the middle school years that are the most stressful.

From their research, “What it feels like to be a mother: Variations by children’s developmental stages” published in the Journal of Developmental Psychology, they concluded, “Regarding the later years of motherhood, our findings support suggestions that the ‘empty nest’ syndrome is largely a myth.”

Most parents of middle school children have a much rougher time of it. Luthar and Ciciolia report that the middle school years are more upsetting than infancy or sending your child off to college: “Mothers of adult children reported the least role overload, and on measures of stress, parenting experiences, and negative perceptions of child, they fared significantly better than mothers of middle-schoolers.”  

Luthar and Ciciolla also found that contrary to what they first hypothesized, mothers of infants were not found to have lower well-being than other groups: “In fact, in comparisons of means, they reported significantly lower levels than most other groups on rejection of child and child negative behaviors.”

4 Tips for Adjusting to an Empty Nest (if you need them)

In spite of strong evidence that empty nest is a myth, advice on how to cope with negative reactions is prevalent. Becky Scott, MSW and full-time lecturer at Baylor University, made sound suggestions that support one of Bouchard’s findings referencing when children leave home. Bouchard makes the point that, “…interaction and activity patterns have to be modified if the family is to persist as a unit.”  

Adapted from Becky Scott’s advice in “Life in the Empty Nest:”

1. Know that there is no “right” way to cope.

Placing expectations of feeling on themselves can make the transition even more difficult. “Parents must live into the new role and be compassionate with themselves no matter how they respond,” Scott said.

2. Embrace communication.

Talk with your children and spouse to set clear expectations about an agreed amount of contact with your child as well as with your partner to determine how you will fill your now child-free schedule.

3. Address and resolve conflicts immediately.

The transition from high school to college will be stressful for students and parents as both parties attempt to settle into their new roles. “…whatever is already a challenge within a family's relationships—these will be highlighted during this transition too. The conflict or hurt that may emerge during launching your adult children is almost always not new conflict, but that which is brought to the surface by change. Take time to resolve it and address it.”

4. Find the delicate balance between supporting your children and letting them learn on their own.

“We want to teach young adults to be interdependent, and this interdependency should include their family of origin, their support structure at their college and new friends,” advised Scott.

How do you think you will or did you react when your young adult children left the nest for college or to live independently?

Related:

Copyright @2016 by Susan Newman 

Resources:

Bouchard, Genevieve. “How do parents react when their children leave home? An integrative review.” Journal of Adult Development. 2014; 21:69–79. doi: 10.1007/s10804-013-9180-8.

Hansen, Thomas. “Parenthood and happiness: a review of folk theories versus empirical evidence.” Social Indices Research. 2012; 108:29–64. doi: 10.1007/s11205-011-9865-y.

Luthar, Suniya S. and Lucia Ciciolla. “What it feels like to be a mother: Variations by children’s developmental stages.” Journal of Developmental Psychology, 2016 January ; 52(1): 143–154. doi:10.1037/dev0000062.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4695277/pdf/nihms-724821.pdf

Simpson, Karyn. “Life in the Empty Nest: Four Tips to Help Parents Make the Adjustment.” [on Becky Scott Tips] August 10, 2016. http://www.newswise.com/articles/view/658912/?sc=dwhn

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