The Art of Letting Go: Tips for Newly Empty Nesters

By: Natalie Rice-Thorp, Ph.D. | September 24, 2021

Do you find yourself looking longingly at your child’s baby pictures? Do the ads for “dorm room décor” bring you to the brink of tears? Have you recently helped your high school graduate pack up their belongings? If the answer is ‘yes,’ then you might be a new empty nester. If you are finding it challenging to let go of your baby, you are not alone. This phase of life transition doesn’t have to be all worries and tears. It is also a time for empowerment and positive change. “How?” you might ask. Keep reading to find out!

It’s not really about letting go; it’s about holding on in a new way

It may not seem like that long ago when your child had their first day of kindergarten. At first you may have felt anxious, sad, and/or excited. As you and your child settled into a new routine, you saw that it opened up a new world for both of you. Over time you learned to adapt and find new ways to continue to be a part of their expanding world. Here you are again, but now you are experienced and wise!

To start things off smoothly, talk to your young adult about what type of communication feels best to them, and how often you will connect, either through text messages, social media, or phone calls. You and your child may benefit from more communication just after they leave the nest, then less as time goes on. Take time to share your ideas about visiting each other and don’t assume that you are all on the same page.

The road to trying new things is bumpy

Your family will be trying a lot of new things during this transition. Some things will run more smoothly than others, and that is to be expected. Just like we don’t ride a bike effortlessly on the first try, we don’t glide through transitions in a beautiful, glossy Instagram way. Consider the first month to be a trial run. Learn what works, what doesn’t work, and adjust where needed. Maybe you thought you wanted a certain amount of communication, maybe they thought they had enough meal point money in their account, maybe everyone else left at home thought that someone else was taking out the trash; maybe you were all wrong. That’s OK; bumps are expected on this road.

Not all worries need to be verbalized

When college students start therapy with me, I often ask them if their parents/caregivers know about their stressors and struggles. The number one reason for a “no” response is “I don’t want them to worry.” It is natural for you to have worries as you send your child out into the world, but if you share all your worry thoughts with them, they may be less inclined to open up. This is a great opportunity to utilize your own social support system. For example, talk to your supportive friends, partner, family, and/or therapist. If you don’t have a support system, now is a good time to start building one. If you are not sure how to build one, a therapist can help you with that.

Not all siblings are the same

You know this already, but it is worth reminding yourself during this transition. This applies not only to the moving out process, but also to how your young adults will keep in touch. The one-size fits all model does not apply, and you may need to adjust your expectations and behaviors. One sibling may expect to shop with you for supplies, go to dinner together during orientation, and come home for holiday breaks. Another sibling may leave you in the dust as they rush toward their newfound independence with hardly a glance back. Continue to communicate with your child about your expectations and plans throughout the transition to find what works best for you both.

Let them make decisions, even if they make mistakes

College is a wonderful training ground for adulthood. If your child is going to college, they will be surrounded by a support network of staff and other students. That system will help them navigate challenging situations and help them get back up when they fall. If your child is moving out and not going to college, you can work with them to identify/build a network of support. It is very common for young adults to tell me that they struggle with making decisions, and at times they are paralyzed by fear that they will make the wrong decision. Making decisions is part of what helps build their confidence. It’s not about making the “right decision,” it’s about learning from our decisions and building resilience for when things don’t work out as we had hoped. Even if you know the answer, encourage your young adult to find the answers from within and practice making decisions for themselves.

In conclusion…

Before you transform your child’s room into your new home office; remember that you have done a version of this before. And you can do it again! All the other transitions up to this point brought you to this phase. You and your child carry those experiences with you to help navigate this next step. Remind yourself that your child has learned from years of your good advice, so you don’t need to give them a condensed version as they head out the door. Before you know it, it will be Thanksgiving and you will wonder where the time went….and why there is so much dirty laundry suddenly appearing in your home. Don’t worry, you got this!


Photo by Anastasia Vityukova on Unsplash

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