Health :: Parents’ empty-nest emotions can be eased

For parents of college freshmen, this time of year can be unsettling, even traumatic, as their sons or daughters leave home. “Parents can expect some transition and a range of emotions regardless of which child is going off to college,” Mark Thompson, director of Colgate University’s Counseling and Psychological Services in Hamilton, New York.

“The greatest impact might be first time around, but for some parents it may be harder the last time around,” he warned.

Thompson, himself the parent of a college undergraduate as well as another soon-to-be first-year student, says there are ways parents can cope with separation anxiety.

“Think ahead about constructive ways to fill the void rather than just suffer through it,” Thompson said. “Form a group of parents working through the same issues or take up a new hobby.”

Thompson encourages parents to maintain contact and involvement with their freshman “without being so involved that they prevent their daughters and sons from having the college experience themselves. It’s the whole helicopter parenting thing,” he said.

Maintaining involvement is especially important for today’s families. “This generation of kids,” Thompson explained, “typically is closer with their parents and they identify their parents as best friends and heroes with a far greater frequency than any other generation that we’ve had before.”

“For today’s parents, who have been so involved with their children, to all of a sudden have no involvement is really unrealistic,” Thompson said.

When empty nesters are feeling particularly lonely, it may help to surf the website of the school’s newspaper, Thompson said. “You may feel better knowing what’s going on at your child’s school and you’ll have fodder for future conversations with your child.”

Thompson suggests that parent and college freshman agree, prior to the drop off at the freshman dorm, how often you’ll communicate and how you’ll talk. “Decide – Will you talk by phone, e-mail or instant messaging? Who will call whom? Then reassess once the first semester gets underway. Is the system working? Are changes needed?”

And what if your college freshman doesn’t call or e-mail at the expected time? “Agree on a backup plan where the parent will call if the freshman hasn’t initiated contact by a certain time,” Thompson said. Most of all, “don’t panic.”

Importantly, Thompson said, when your college coed comes home for school break, “expect to see change because the child you send off will not be the one that returns and shouldn’t be.”

“As hard as it may be, parents need to remember that we want them to come home independent, self sufficient and confident, not needing our help on the one hand yet knowing when to ask for help when they need it.”

It’s also important to negotiate the school break ahead of time, Thompson said. Realize that freshman will want to spend time with friends and they keep “very different time schedules than parents do — out to all hours of the night and sleeping till midday.”

“It’s okay to say, I know these are the hours you may keep at school but could we find a happy medium while you’re at home visiting,” Thompson said.

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