Surprise Reaction to the Empty Nest

True confession time: I had a surprise reaction to the empty nest.

As someone who worked for more than a decade at a large public university — and someone who is a self-avowed “let them learn their own lessons” parent — I did not think that navigating the college search process with my children would bring so many surprises. One thing that hit me out of left field was my reaction to the empty nest. I had seen it so often from the other side, I was sure I’d be prepared and all but immune. I was sure of this right up to the moment after we had helped her move in. We hugged,  got back in the van, pulled out of the parking lot, and at this point I burst into tears and cried all the way home.

Did not see that coming.

RELATED: 10 Dorm Items You Actually Need

I learned three important things that day:

  1. You may think you know how you’ll react to sending your oldest child off, but you don’t really know until you do it.
  2. It is perfectly normal to be sad. You have nurtured your child from day one. Expecting to just send them off into the wide world with a gentle push and a wave is probably not realistic.
  3. Just because you’ve done a good job preparing your child to go out into the world does not mean you’ve done anything to prepare yourself for it.

Coping strategies:

The first thing I did (once I got out of the flowing tears into the snuffling stage) was to give myself a good stern lecture that this was exactly what I had always wanted for her. This was the culmination of all her hard work up to this point — and it wasn’t about me.

The strange little thing that helped me the most was planning the next trip we would take as a family. Knowing we would all be together again in a matter of weeks made it all seem bearable. Seeing a familiar hotel reservation for five in my browser (and soon on my credit card!) was cathartic. Do I realize that the days of these “all five of us” trips are numbered? Yes, but one hard life lesson at a time, please. (I’ll think obsess about that tomorrow.)

What Isn’t Healthy

Setting up a weekly time to talk was also helpful. I knew I did not need to be in her space, talking every day or multiple times of day. Tempting as it might be, this is not healthy — not for my coping and not for her independence. Our weekly connection time is Thursday afternoons after class/before supper. I consoled myself by letting her know she could, of course, call any time she needed me in between. Something else I soon learned: She never needs me in between. As Beth Parker noted in her homesickness post, How to Parent Your Homesick College Student, it’s a good thing when they begin to enjoy their new space as familiar. (Repeating to myself, “This is a good thing. This is a good thing.”)

Think hard about all that parenting you did leading up to this moment, and have some faith that you did well. The best advice I can give is to embrace the new adventure of seeing your child becoming an adult. Sure, it’s probably out of your comfort zone, but that’s the only place growth happens!

RELATED: It’s OK to Grieve When Your Child Leaves for College


Subscribe To Our Newsletter

CampusChat keeps parents, students, educators and counselors informed of college news, tips, and resources -- all delivered directly to your inbox.

Your contact info will not be shared without your permission. We don't like spam and assume you don't either.

You have Successfully Subscribed!