“One minute I’m crying because he is leaving, and the next minute I’m crying because he doesn’t go for two more weeks.” Kerry said, soon before her eldest son left for college. “Ian was ready to leave home when he was still in middle school. College couldn’t come soon enough for him,” she said “He rebelled over everything to do with being part of the family. Getting him to go places with us or help with chores always led to an argument. It got to the point that I couldn’t wait for him to leave, but I also couldn’t imagine him not here.”
Kerry’s friend Leah had the opposite experience with her son, who she described as a homebody who loved hanging out with his parents and siblings. “Ryan had a rough time his freshman year of college. He could have gone out of state but chose the school closest to home, even though it wasn’t the best program for his intended major,” Leah said, “He came home every weekend that first semester, and we wondered why we were paying for a dorm room. We were so relieved when he finally made a couple of friends and got involved in campus life.”
The emotional roller coaster parents experience when their teenagers leave home is a different ride with each child, sometimes long and sometimes short, but always bumpy.
Consider that, like Ian, your teen may begin mentally preparing to leave the nest as early as 12 years of age. That doesn’t mean they are packing up and looking for a roommate yet, but they are beginning to exert their independence. It starts with actions like keeping their bedroom door shut, hanging out at friends’ homes more than their own, or acting out when family time cuts in on their social lives.
Therapists call this stage individuation, and it’s critical to teenagers’ development. Teens are learning who they are socially, sexually, morally, emotionally, and intellectually. It is a very stressful time for many teens, as well as for their parents. Teens will often be egocentric, argumentative, and may make some poor decisions along the way. Your job as a parent is to help them stay safe while they navigate this period.
By the time your teenager has a driver’s license and a part-time job, he or she has likely had a few years of experience testing their boundaries. And while it may not be fun to live with, it’s a good thing. Teens who learn how to make their own decisions, and how to deal with the consequences of their decisions, are well on their way to becoming adults who make good decisions.
If your teenager has decided it’s time to move out on their own, whether to attend school, to enter the workforce, or to live with a friend or partner, you can help them most by remembering that it’s their job to grow up and leave the nest, so don’t take it personally.
Depending upon the circumstances under which your teenager is moving out, you may be feeling happy, excited, and proud, or worried, sad, or even embarrassed. In any case you can help your teen be successful by honoring his or her feelings. Let your teen know you are available to help with problem solving if they need it but remain a sounding board and try to let them handle their issues. Resist the temptation to get involved in every facet of your young adult’s life and respect their privacy.
Leanne’s daughter, Emma, was still in high school when she moved out of her family home.
“We were arguing almost daily about what she would do after graduation. I wanted her to stay home after graduating so she could save money while getting her AA degree at our community college, but she didn’t want to go to college,” Leanne said, “She moved in with her boyfriend when she turned 18, three months before her high school graduation.”
Leanne acknowledges that she was pushing her own agenda on her daughter. “I was embarrassed she was shacking up with her boyfriend when she could have stayed home and furthered her education.” The relationship didn’t last, but Emma was able to keep the apartment and is doing well. “She has really blossomed. She works hard, pays her own bills, and is taking classes to be a massage therapist. I’m proud of her.”
How to help them.
One area where you can feel confident about speaking up is around safety concerns. Young men and women need to be conscious of their personal and financial security. Talk with them about various ways to protect themselves and insist on having the contact information of your child’s landlord, roommates, and partner in case of an emergency.
Once your teenager, or young adult, leaves home, you will need to turn your attention to your own mental health. Quite often a parent discovers that the anxiety they felt prior to their child leaving the nest has more to do with their own insecurities than their teen’s. The time and attention you spent on your high schooler may have occupied a considerable part of your life. Even if you have more children at home, you may find a hole in your routine.
After they are gone.
Empty nest syndrome is real. While you are still a parent, you are grieving the end of your role as a caregiver. Mothers typically experience empty nest syndrome more often than fathers since they usually have more to do with caregiving.
It’s very common for women to suffer a loss of identity without their children at home. Moms often feel stuck; not knowing what to do with their time and not being used to putting their own needs or desires first. Allow yourself to refocus on personal or career goals, take up a new hobby, or redecorate your home.
If you struggle with focusing on yourself after your teen has moved out, it may help to talk to a therapist about your feelings. Psychologists say it can take up to two years to adjust to your new normal. If you have other children at home or your teenager has not yet left the nest, you can prepare by planning ahead. Start to think about what you want to do once you have more time.
Marriages often undergo some transformation when the kids leave home. If there was tension in your marriage prior to your children moving out, it may be resolved as you are able to spend more time with your spouse, or it could be amplified if you and your spouse have grown apart. If you are in the latter situation, try dating your spouse all over again. Explore new activities or take a trip together.
Whatever you do, don’t stray too far from home, because Thanksgiving will be here before you know it and the kids will be back!