Empty nest syndrome can materialize in unexpected ways, says Susan Ellis, senior coordinator of special recruitment initiatives at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York. Ellis, whose own two children have left the nest, says, “The hardest part, in my opinion, is when you go home because the house is quieter. And you're balancing groceries [for fewer family members]. You suddenly have less laundry and the bedroom door is closed.”
Simple things like these can manifest into feelings of loss, she says.
Empty nest syndrome does not refer to a specific clinical diagnosis, according to Mayo Clinic. Instead, the syndrome refers to feelings of sadness and loss when a parent's last child leaves home.
Admission and school counseling professionals can help minimize the impact of empty nesters and help parents realize that separation and individualization between parent and child is a developmental necessity.
Becky Priest, college counselor at the Cambridge School in San Diego, says the most common feelings parents experience are grief of loss and sadness. “It’s a guilt sadness because you want to be happy for your kid because you don’t want them living in your house forever. We know it’s a natural stage of life, but it’s very sad for families where there’s a good relationship,” she says.
Priest's own son, an only child, has gone off to college. “Our son has been home in between, so I feel like we're always in this weird stage and waiting period. He’s not out of the house totally, so it’s this weird waiting game,” she says. “My husband and I are so excited for Thanksgiving for him to come home. It’s this sense of then we'll send him off again, and it’s waiting and waiting. It’s always this anticipation of thinking about your child.”
She acknowledges that since her son is an only child, she has had a different experience compared to parents who have multiple children. Some might become grandparents before their last child is done with college. “They’re always adjusting to whatever their older kid is doing,” Priest says.
A 2003 American Psychological Association article highlighted a study that found that parents' ability to enjoy their empty nests is linked to how children handle the transition.
It also found that men are more likely to have a hard time than their female counterparts when their children leave home. Of the 147 mothers and 114 fathers in the study, researchers found that the fathers were less prepared for the transition. As a result, fathers were more likely to express feelings of loss. This may be a direct result of the fact that the number of hours men spend with their children has tripled since 1965, according to a 2014 article in The New York Times.
Sara-Jean Gilbert, associate director of admission at Illinois College in Jacksonville, IL, says that everyone handles the transition differently. “There’s an expectation that you have to be devastated. You can turn it around and make it a really great experience, but a lot of people end up being surprised by how emotional they are. They sometimes feel like they’re going to be better at it than they really are.”
Gilbert says it can translate to interesting behaviors at move-in. She and her admission team recommend that parents talk about it with someone or find someone who’s gone through it before. “I tend to be a listening ear but I don’t know that everyone’s ready to do that, regardless of whether it’s their first child going to school, last, or their middle,” she adds.
Mayo Clinic's website says that an empty nest might offer positive benefits. The transition, for instance, may: 1) reduce work and family conflicts; 2) provide parents with an opportunity to reconnect with each other; 3) improve the quality of the parents’ marriage; and 4) provide opportunities for parents to rekindle old interests.
Priest says that the parent-child relationship can also affect the transition. She says most of the families at her school have good relationships with their kids. “Parents are really involved in their kids’ lives. The ones who don’t have a good relationship, they seem less affected by the college transition. They’re more aloof or indifferent,” she adds. “They realize they’re missing out on something. Parents are friends with each other, and when they see their friends in that sad stage, they think ‘Hmm… something is different in my house.’”
Ellis says distance matters as well. When students from faraway states move onto the Adelphi campus, which is 30 minutes to Manhattan by train, it adds a layer of anxiety. “Not all kids will go home for a little snippet for Thanksgiving. You can see that anxiety level, depending on the distance between the parent and student.”
Gilbert says that attachment between parents and students has changed a lot during her 10 years in higher education.
She has observed lawnmower parents, who rush ahead to intervene for their kids, saving the child from discomfort or inconvenience. The labels seem endless: “curling,” “snowplow,” and “bulldozer” parents also creep into the mixture as well.
British psychologist John Bowlby’s work on attachment theory began when he discovered disruptions in maternal bonds among delinquent boys. Bowlby found that secure individuals weather changes more smoothly than individuals with more insecurity.
The strength of college students' attachment to their parents may be a possible indicator of success academically. As part of a 2010 study published in the College Student Affairs Journal, 459 college freshmen of multiple ethnicities were sent an online survey which measured parent-child attachment, college adjustment, and academic achievement. Higher ratings of attachment to parents during the first and third years of college meant higher GPAs for students according to a 2010 study. A 1994 study published by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology also found a significant positive correlation between undergraduates’ GPAs and scores of parental support.
A college professor wrote on the website Grown and Flown that parents can do a lot to get students ready for college at any age. School-age kids can order at restaurants, ask for directions, and call friends on the phone for playdates. High school kids can attempt all communication on their own, such as in situations that relate to trouble with school, make-up quizzes, and more. Parents can give kids of all ages room to make mistakes and learn from them.
Gilbert suggests making plans after dropping students off at school. She also suggests that parents should have a set time where they can talk with their college-age children. “Assuming that the student is doing well and doing fine, then they (the parents) need to focus on themselves because parents haven’t been conditioned to do that. Schedule some time to visit family or go on vacation where you can have that buffer from move-in and going home to an empty house.”
Ellis agrees. She says the most successful parents have hobbies and have thought about what they're going to do when their student is gone, especially parents who lost themselves along the way and have to reconnect with themselves.
Developing opportunities in their personal and professional lives or taking on new challenges at work or at home can help ease the sense of loss that their child's departure may cause.
Gilbert doesn't encourage new college students to go home early on. She suggests making a plan to visit students on campus and connect with them there. “Give them a couple of weekends and ask them if it’s a good idea to come to campus and you can see them having that experience that’s their own, even if they’re struggling a little bit,” she says.
Priest says it's a good idea for parents to spend time with other people going through the same transition. She suggests going on walks and getting together with other parents who are empty nesters. She adds, “Look for those people who are going through it for the first time. It’s good for both families to connect to have friends who are going through it and understand the pain.”
The Mayo Clinic suggests taking the following steps:
Ellis believes that parents whose children have participated in athletics and other extracurricular activities have an easier time with the transition because they often travel great distances for sports games or other events in which their child is a participant. “They’ll come from anywhere to see their kid pitch in that game or dance on that stage,” she says.
Parents of first-generation students may need hand-holding, especially if English isn't their first language. “You can sense some anxious feelings because they don’t have any experience with it,” says Ellis. “We need to work a little harder for their students to feel comfortable and (for) these parents (to) realize that we’re going to take care of them, their mental health, their nutritional needs. We need to help squelch that uneasiness that they’re feeling.”
Ellis also says it's important to educate families about the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) as early as possible, even before orientation, which is when a lot of families hear about it for the first time. FERPA refers to the federal law regarding children’s education records, amended records, and control over these records. When a student turns 18 years old or enters a postsecondary institution at any age, the rights under FERPA transfer from the parents to the student.
Ellis says, “We get parents who get really annoyed because they think it’s like high school or elementary school. They say, 'I can’t even see my kid's grades?' We have to educate them because they don’t understand FERPA. When they lose that piece, I think it’s another blow. And what if you have a kid who doesn’t communicate? All colleges could do a much better job of having parents understand FERPA.”
Ellis says she's the first point of contact at Adelphi for parents to hear about FERPA. She says one parent was angry at her because they thought it was a “stupid, mean rule” and didn't realize it applies at all colleges.
Priest says that she hosts programs for parents where other parents who’ve already gone through the emotional transition to college talk about what to expect. “Those older parents talk about logistics, such as packing or how to handle the goodbye when they get on campus, what to expect emotionally in the moment during the goodbye,” she says. “There’s not as much talk about what to do when you get home.”
Ellis initiated a parent chat series with another colleague. “We begin in December or January and meet regularly with parents via Zoom twice a month in the evenings. This is their safe space to ask questions,” she says. Ellis says it's been wildly successful and that she's experienced a 200 percent participation increase. Parents ask questions about safety, money, whether their child will be happy, and whether their child will have enough to do on campus. She says some parents bring up their own feelings about the transition.
Ellis says her office tries to be intentional about helping parents. “All young counselors meet with senior counselors and they make their rounds to the international counselors. They get a flavor of what I do, and a little bit of a touch base on these things. We've started to incorporate having the senior counselors expose them to some of these questions.” They have started sending letters to alumni and try to meet the needs of parents on campus tours and through the family chats on Zoom.
Priest advises parents to expect reduced bills, such as electric and water, as well as the need for fewer groceries. She suggests telling families that those changes can be an unexpected, tangible reminder that your child is gone.
She also suggests leaning into the positives and says that just like any other change in life, it's just going to take some time. “Be patient with yourself. You’re in this middle ground for a while until your kid is established, so it’s this weird tension of wanting to adjust to a new stage of life but reverting to them being back.”
Gilbert thinks that in general, it’s important to prepare admission counselors, especially new ones, for how conversations with parents might go in the context of empty nesting (and other tough conversations) and encourage them not to be scared about those interactions with families.
“They are people, they are worried, they are going through a crazy transition, there is always something outside of our understanding. We make sure that that’s a priority and nurture that relationship, but let them know that they’re important to that whole process. We make sure that our counselors know that listening is the most important thing. Start out listening and being that shoulder to lean on a bit—that’s a good way to get them comfortable with having those conversations.”
Gilbert says her team does its best to let families know the types of resources available to students, particularly through student affairs. “The [institutions] that are extra-ready are the ones who tell the parents. We are working on normalizing help-seeking culture so we make sure our students have relationships with people who can support them and help them understand that they’re going to need it. It’s already ready for them once they’re ready for it.”
It's important to flip that a little bit and help them understand about the developmental piece, she says. “If you’re doing your job as a parent, they’re going to leave at a certain point. It means that if you do everything right, your kids are going to go off and do something really cool,” she adds.
Even so, Ellis admits that not everyone realizes it right away. “It’s a major life transition,” she says. “Sometimes parents don't even realize it until they get home from dropping their child off at college.”
Melissa Brock worked for 12 years as an admission counselor and senior associate director at Central College in Pella, Iowa, and is a freelance writer and editor.