When Twyla Surritte and her husband, Dan Rodriguez, dropped their daughter Amaya off at Whitworth University in Washington, Surritte says it took a while to feel comfortable with the separation.
Amaya, their only child, was a big part of their lives. Surritte was Amaya’s middle school principal and taught one of her 10th grade classes.
“When you don’t have somebody living in your house, you’re taken out of the inner loop and sometimes you only get a monthly summary of highs and lows,” Surritte says. “It’s sad but also liberating.”
Just like Surrite and her husband, when children head off for college or move to digs of their own, parents often experience a sense of sadness and loss. But the so-called “empty nest syndrome” parents go through is a condition, not a clinical diagnosis, unless the depression becomes chronic, says Dr. Jane Derk, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist in Greeley whose practice focuses on family and parenting.
People’s identities are intertwined with being a parent, so it can be disorienting when children leave home. Derk says that’s normal. She calls it one of the many steps parents experience when separating from offspring.
Derk calls this period “bittersweet.” However, she adds that parents experience these developmental transitions throughout their children’s lives, from when they leave for kindergarten to when they get their driver’s license to the final transition of leaving home. “It’s a constant process,” Dirk says.
Taking steps toward separation
The first step toward physical separation is preparing children to make good decisions. Helping them develop adult skills includes having discussions before they leave home about budgeting, sexuality and taking care of their living spaces and bodies. Talking over these topics with your children can potentially ease parental worries.
The next step for parents is finding coping mechanisms to adjust to the change. That could be joining a Bridge group, calling friends for lunch, exercising, enrolling in an art class, going back to school or getting a different job. Think of it as a renaissance, an opportunity to recreate yourself and develop parts of you that have been put aside, Derk says.
For Surritte and her husband, talking with other parents who were going through similar separations helped. It also helped that the couple found they could rekindle their own individuality, pursuing travel and outdoor activities they had put on hold while raising Amaya.
“When your kids are home on weekends, you’re planning around the third person. When Amaya left for college, we didn’t have weekend sports and her schedule so we could do our own thing,” Surritte says.
Derk cautions that if a departure was strained or there was previous stress in the parent-child relationship, there might be more psychological issues for parents and children.
Michelle and Jeff Jones have two children, ages 28 and 24. They didn’t become empty nesters for a long time, and even then, it’s been off and on.
Their son, Charlie, returned home at 22 after sustaining a head injury, left and then returned again because he was unable to work. He now lives with his grandparents after earning an Aviation Mechanics Technology degree. Their daughter, Charlotte, left at 19, earning a Fine Arts degree from Western Colorado University. She currently lives apart from her parents.
Michelle says it was complicated: her children were headstrong and there was some substance abuse, along with a wide range of teenage issues. She was torn between wanting them out of the house and worrying about them. She says the situation was emotionally difficult for both children, particularly after her son developed mental health issues following the head injury.
“That was a dark time for him; when he lived with us, he started to get healthier and there was a lot of hope. But then the wheels fell off the bus around mental health and substance abuse issues, which stressed our marriage,” Michelle says, noting that the situation was emotionally difficult for both children.
Empty nests and the effect on marriages
When a child leaves home it can affect a marriage. Derk says a lot of people divorce after children leave if they find they have nothing in common other than raising the kids.
Divorce is more likely after a 20-year marriage. For people ages 50+, divorce rates have doubled since 1990; ages 65+ rates have tripled, she notes.
Derk says it’s partly because there is more freedom for people to divorce, and societal expectations for women have changed. Women’s financial opportunities have increased; they no longer define themselves solely as a wife and mother.
“If the parents can console each other and feel like they have a future together, it’ll work,” she says. “If one parent feels they’ve done their job while the other goes the depressive route, it’s good to be considerate of each other’s emotions.”
A stepfamily can complicate things; one parent’s enthusiasm might be considered lack of empathy by the biological parent.
Derk says marital strain isn’t inevitable but partners can help keep the marriage alive with date nights and mutually enjoyable activities. It’s an opportunity to discuss planning your future, whether that’s moving to the beach or rock climbing.
Therapy might help partners learn to communicate about their relationship instead of limiting conversation to the kids’ needs.
Because of their son’s substance abuse issues, the Joneses went to Al-Anon meetings, using those tools as coping mechanisms to help marital strain.
“We used tools for boundary-setting, that I can’t control someone else’s behavior and being present living day-to-day. Most important is realizing I can’t change anybody other than myself and how I respond to others,” Michelle says.
The meetings shifted energy away from talking about their children’s activities, allowing the couple to concentrate on their 30-year marriage and work on understanding each other better.
These days, Michelle accepts she may not know what her kids’ future will be but focuses on their strengths and not the negatives.
How involved is too involved?
Parents have complicated relationships with their children. Derk warns against being a helicopter parent, or one who micromanages their child’s behavior.
“You’re not in charge anymore unless they’re doing something dangerous. Your job is to help them develop reasoning and planning skills, like considering the pros and cons of an action,” she says.
But she also reminds parents that because the frontal cortex decision-making portion of the brain doesn’t develop until the mid-20s, kids don’t operate yet on a fully adult level even if they are legally considered adults at 18.
Communication is key, but the amount and frequency vary by individual. Derk recommends agreeing on a good time for everybody to talk, whether it’s weekly phone calls on Sunday and texting during the week about concerns and needs, or talking daily, if your child wants that connection. Send cards and cookies, too.
“It’s okay to talk every day but be careful not to rescue them. You’re there to help them make the choices,” she says.
Amaya says when she left for college, she and her parents understood it was an adjustment, not a breakaway. Because the situation was positive, Amaya says she was eager to come home for the holidays and have them visit.
Even now, as a married adult with three children, Amaya says, “I have this internal clock that goes off every few days. I feel unanchored if I haven’t talked with them.”
Amaya likens it to knitting. “If you knit for a while and don’t make a stitch, the yarn gets loose and you have to keep anchoring it. That’s how I feel about keeping in touch with my parents.”
One of the most important topics to discuss when children leave is money. The discussion should cover budgeting: what they expect of you and what they will provide for themselves.
It’s not okay to talk about where they drive, what they eat, and you’re not in charge of curfew, Derk cautions.
Surritte thinks she and her husband hounded their daughter with more questions than they should have, but says Amaya was always gracious and honest with them. Now that their daughter lives in another state, Surritte says it’s easier to consider her as another adult friend. Surritte and Rodriguez recently retired and spend several weeks every few months in their daughter and son-in-law’s home.
“You give friends advice when it’s asked for and let them vent without solving a problem. A little bit of distance inevitably contributed to that,” she says.
Amaya appreciates that her parents email their monthly schedule so she can gauge when they’ll have time for conversations. Conversely, her parents text first to see if she’s available to chat.
Charlotte and her parents didn’t have set times to talk when she left for school, but she heard from them every few weeks. Her mom texted and sent care packages. And Charlotte reached out when she needed help or advice.
Charlotte believes that having her own personal space when she left for school helped heal the relationship. “It allowed my mother to see me as an individual and not an extension of herself. Some of my parents’ expectations for me they had when I was growing up are no longer there. They can see me for who I am.”
With trust developing in both directions, Charlotte says she’s at a place where she can tell them anything about her life.
“I know they’re on my side and the fear of them making something worse is no longer there. I’m really happy with where our relationship is now.”
She also knows the door is open to her parents’ home whenever she chooses, including moving back in with them while she’s job hunting.
Charlotte admits it’s tempting from a financial perspective. But she knows from experience that it’s better for her mental health to have her own space.
Emily Kemme is a Colorado freelance writer and novelist. She’s inching closer to an empty nest, although her two collie “children” have no current plans to head out into the world beyond their yard.