The Empty Nest Syndrome
by Michael DiPalma, Counselor
I often joke with colleagues and students alike about having been in college since 1989 – as a son, student, and higher education professional. While that doesn’t necessarily make me an expert, it has allowed me to develop a rather unique perspective regarding college life – for both students and parents alike. Here follows an open letter to mothers and fathers, and sons and daughters, regarding what has often been called "The Empty Nest Syndrome."
Incoming students are often asked to make calculated decisions that will have lasting implications for the rest of their lives – a huge responsibility for any young person. On the other hand, parents are often placed in a position of beginning the process of relinquishing their decision making responsibilities for their sons and daughters – a huge undertaking for them. Together, as the emotional, financial and material support essential to the growth and development of families becomes realized, each comes face to face with the proverbial turning point in time.
Throughout their first year, and continuing through the rest of their college experience, students will begin to move in and out of their parent’s lives as triumphs arise or crises occur. As students shift their support systems from the home to college, the quantity and intensity of their contacts with parents often decreases. As you might expect, this shifting can bring about some rather unexpected turn of events. A student’s reentry into their parent’s lives can be awkward and confusing, as well as comforting and confirming.
At times there will be a sense of sentimentality when students drop back for a quiet weekend or a family celebration. Sentimentality of this sort eventually lessens when contacts with family and friends are reduced to vacations, occasional visits, text messages, phone calls or emails. High-spirited accounts of recent events and successes can brighten up any parent’s day. On the other hand, complaints and disappointing conversations can interrupt peaceful days at home or invade parent’s lives. Some students may elect to protect their parents from disappointments and problems. Partly because they may feel guilty that their parents have sacrificed so much for their education, while others are protecting themselves from a parent’s possible lack of understanding and support.
There will be days when students are feeling down and parents react too quickly to their discomfort out of love and protection. They may have a difficult time assessing how much a sorrowful call or email reflects the reality of their life away from home. Even when students do attempt to communicate their difficulties, they may find it frustrating, if not impossible, to capture the day-to-day experiences of their new world in such brief communications.
For many students the ever widening gap between their experience of the world and the world in which their parents live is filled with conflicting feelings and attitudes. Before long, both students and parents are locked into a day-to-day struggle with letting go of what once was, while trying to cope with what is and what will be.
Keeping in touch with each other is crucial. As the semesters move forward parents may wonder why their children seem so approachable at times yet at other times so distant. They may begin to notice their sons and daughters pulling back abruptly, or acting out through moments of silence and opposition. They may stop calling or emailing for weeks, be unresponsive to their parent’s attempts to communicate, claiming uncharacteristically that they have nothing to say. Some students may fight their family separation battles on an intellectual level, arguing with parents over the phone about politics, economics, or values – testing themselves and establishing their independence. As students mature (and they will) they soon begin to realize if their parents hadn’t made certain decisions, they may have never gone to college. They begin to realize their own lives and opportunities would have been narrow and limited.
There may come a time when students begin to send parents signals and clues; some of which are indirect requests for attention, ranging from bouts of homesickness to physical or mental illness. Since students ultimately face bouts of minor illness, they will likely miss the comforts of home. They often call home when they are feeling their absolute worst, seeking a great deal of nurturing. Students may even comment about their own behavior, hinting at or talking about depression, anxiety, eating disorders or substance abuse as well as and other impulsive and self-destructive behaviors. It will hurt to hear about your child in the torment of misery from a broken romance, or filled with self-doubt, or struggling with a weight problem, or trying to secure a starting position on the team. During these times, they want you to respond – they need you to respond. They don’t want you to panic or nag, but to know that they are in trouble and to take them seriously.
Brief episodes of depression and anxiety are rather common among college students; most will feel the extreme pressure of college life sooner or later. Always another book to read, another paper to write, another exam to take – it just never seems to go away. Add to this a broken heart, disappointing grades, the threat of losing financial aid, being rejected by a fraternity, sorority, or peer group – all losses that take their toll. Most will cope with their fears and disappointments and will pick themselves up with remarkable strength and resilience. It is important to understand that their losses may be particularly powerful, and a parent’s attention to them is more than appreciated – it is vital to their growth and adjustment.
Situations will arise when students respond intensely to the problems and tragedies that occur around them. A fellow student’s attempted suicide, a rape, a fatal car accident, or a national crisis – any tragedy that powerfully shatters the illusion of invulnerability is likely to create ripples of distress throughout the entire campus community. Some students become so consumed with the problems of their friends and peers that they feel virtually overtaken by a sense of responsibility to them. In their desire to be helpful, sometimes they’re unable to set appropriate boundaries, and they take on more responsibility than they can realistically handle.
Visits home and first vacations are usually the most intense for everyone involved. When students return home, most of them expect to find everything just the way they left it, as though time had stopped while they were gone. At the same time they want or expect parents to recognize and respect that they have changed – that they have been living on their own and have become more and more independent.
Students may begin to bait parents with newly learned bits of philosophy and social awareness. They may become annoyed at parental attempts to control their comings and goings, behaviors and schedules. Having grown accustom to independence at college, they may take rigid stances and turn down any suggestions a parent offers. Parents who may find it tricky to strike a balance between respecting their son’s or daughter’s emerging independence, and wanting to run their household with some degree of order, may need to modify some of their old rules in light of the increased independence their child has grown to value. This calls for a strong sense of balance, patience and a good sense of humor by all.
For many, breaks and vacations will become a bittersweet time. Just when parents thought they had gotten use to a quieter household, it fills up again with music, laughter and enthusiasm. Friends will drop by to reminisce or to share tales of their current college adventures. Suddenly there isn’t enough milk in the refrigerator, siblings bicker about trivial matters, the dishes and laundry stack up, and the cell phone rings every ten minutes as plans for the evening are made and remade. Although it will be wonderful to be together again, parents will start to realize that their family will never be the same, and students will start to realize that school isn’t home, and the home they once knew is no longer the center of their lives.
The more involved with school students become, the more they’ll begin to explore, take risks, and make mistakes without drastic consequences. While they begin their elusive search for their identity, some behaviors may seem confusing, humorous or painful as they continue to test and push extremes. Parents may also find that as they attempt to strengthen their grip, the more abrasive and rebellious their children become.
As students become exposed to the diversity of people and ideas, their world no longer looks quite so simple. Students soon discover that there is no longer one answer; there is no longer one truth, but many upon many valid perspectives. They may even begin to confront parent’s values, decisions and opinions. Before long, a student’s developing identity will bring parents face to face with their own.
While it’s impossible to predict exactly how parents and students will grow during the college years, without a doubt, the practice of mutual trust between parents and students is essential. To be respected, trusted and loved requires us to expose our vulnerabilities to those we value unconditionally. We soon learn that we must balance our own needs with someone else’s if we are ever to confront and resolve the difficulties of change and growth together.