When kids fly the nest: 5 tips to parents for letting go
Principal Debora Borges-Carrera hands out information packets to students and parents during an open house for incoming freshman and transfer students at Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts in Philadelphia, Aug. 29, 2013. (AP / Matt Slocum)
Published Saturday, September 7, 2013 8:42AM EDT
In all the back-to-school fuss that bombards Canadian families at this time of year, there's always a lot of focus on the children: how to help the young ones adjust to "big school"; how middle-schoolers can navigate the thorny world of high school; how to help college kids transition out into the "real world."
But what of the parents?
Watching children spread their wings and flee the nest, whether it's to kindergarten or college or anywhere in between, is a lot harder on parents than many will admit. Parents are told they should be happy to see their children growing and maturing. But for many of them, it's a heartbreaking time as they struggle to let their children go.
Psychologist Dr. Mike Condra, the director of the Health Counseling and Disability Services at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., has some tips for helping parents accept the need to let go and to make sense of the way they're feeling during this bittersweet time.
Realize your feelings are normal
The first thing Dr. Condra wants parents to know is that it's perfectly normal to feel both sadness and anxiety as they watch their children's independence grow, whether they're young preschoolers or budding adults.
"It's not surprising that when someone you cared for and nourished and nurtured for so many years goes, it leaves a gap," he says. "And it's quite normal to have some anxiety about whether they're going to be alright."
Condra says parents who feel worried about how their children are going to cope without them are often made to feel as though they are being silly or over-emotional, but these are legitimate feelings.
"Parents are often a little maligned. We call them helicopter parents or Velcro parents. But we need to understand it's an adjustment for both parent and child," he says. "Because we love our children. And when someone you love goes away, you miss them, and because they're young, you worry."
For most parents, the first few weeks after a child begins school or leaves for college are the hardest, Condra says. It gets easier after parents begin hearing regularly from their children that their new school and teachers are okay and they're enjoying what they're learning. That's when most parents begin to feel reassured.
"Most of the anxiety of the transition should last a couple of weeks. If it goes on longer that that, we'd have concerns it's more than just the transition," Condra says. "Or, if your son or daughter says they're fine, but your anxiety doesn't go away, maybe there's more than the anxiety of leaving going on."
In most cases, Condra says, the parents who find it the hardest to let go are also the ones who were the most wrapped up in their children's lives, who spent a lot of time in their company or managing their lives.
"So if being a part of their child's life is how they defined themselves, it's harder. When they go, it leaves a hole in their lives and in their identity. That can cause a difficulty," Condra says.
For these parents, he says, it's important to work on rebuilding other aspects of who they are. That could mean spending time on other interests, or hobbies, or re-cultivating relationships with other adults.
Manage feelings of envy
Many parents are surprised to realize that, as they watch their children set out into the next phase of their lives, they are actually feeling a little envious -- or even jealous.
Condra says this is sometimes the case among parents of first-generation Canadian college students, who might not have had a chance for the good education that their children do. They might begin feeling resentful as they listen to what their children are learning and experiencing. Others might regret some of the paths they've chosen in life and might envy their children's ability to have a fresh start.
Condra says these conflicted feelings can begin to strain the relationship between parent and child.
"I've certainly met students where it's pretty clear the parents are feeling a little envious. Some parents don't want to hear about everything their child is experiencing because it's a little bit painful," he says.
"But at the same time, these parents love their kids, so it also brings guilt."
It's OK to feel relieved
Another reason parents might feel guilt at this of year: they realize they're relieved to have their children gone. Sure, there are commercials that joke that this is really, 'the most wonderful time of the year,' but many parents are afraid to admit to being glad to have their children gone.
But this feeling, too, is normal, Condra says. It's understandable that harried parents of younger children might be glad to finally have a few hours to themselves. For parents of college-age kids who have moved out, this might be the first time in years their parents don't have to wait up for their kids on a Friday night, drumming their fingers and wondering if they're OK.
"Some feel guilty about feeling relieved and happy their children are gone. But happiness is part of the typical reaction of a child leaving," Condra says.
"Really, life is always the most tricky when we have a combination of feelings. When we are feeling both sad and happy, and envious and guilty, that's a hard place to be. It's the conflict that's difficult," he adds.
Trust your instincts
If there's one question from parents Dr. Condra hears most often this time of year, it's: 'How often should I call my child? I don't want to be a nuisance, but I don't want them to feel alone either."
Condra says he usually advises parents to keep relationships the way they're used to, for at least the first while. So if you talked or texted several times a day, your child might prefer to keep up that familiar pattern. Over time, the child might want more distance, but he says parents should use their intuition to decide if their kids are doing alright.
"I tell parents, 'You are the best expert on your child. You can judge how often (to call) is best," Condra says.
"You're also the one who knows when things are not okay. So if they're not calling as often, or they sound sad, there's intuition involved. You often know before they even speak the words."
Condra says different families will handle these life transitions differently, and it's important to remember this is a process - both for the children and for the parents as they adjust to the changes.
"We need to be able to accept that we're going to have anxiety," Condra says. "And we need to be able to let go gradually."