When Your Only Child Leaves Home
You've cared for, nagged at and laughed with your only child for almost two decades – and now he's leaving home. You knew it would happen, but are you prepared?
It may be surprising to discover that it's the parents who have raised one child who are often the most prepared to let go when it comes time for their child to fly the coop. "Parents with more children often depend on those left at home and then are shocked when the last child leaves because they never thought it would happen," says Susan Newman, a New Jersey-based social psychologist and author of Parenting an Only Child: The Joys and Challenges of Raising Your One and Only. "Parents with one seem to know their child will leave at some point and tend to be more prepared; they know they have no 'cushion,' so to speak."
When your only child leaves home, there is an adjustment period. There will be obvious and abrupt changes in the daily routine that will become less foreign as time passes. This is a new stage in your life and the life of your child; it will take time to find your way. It's important to take small steps in the early months after your child leaves home.
"I tell parents to wait for six months or a year before you decide to relocate," says Newman. "You want your child to be able to come back to what he knows – his house, his room, his friends."
Newman says a parent who is suffering from sadness should admit it to their spouse – and themselves. She says it is best not to discuss your personal feelings of loss with your child who is coping with his own changing issues. "If the sadness is interfering with functioning, find a professional to talk to," she says. "Sadness is caused by the void left, and until you can adjust, it's a good idea to keep yourself busy."
"The empty nest syndrome is a bit overrated," says Paul Coleman, Psy.D., author of nine books, including, How to Say It to Your Child When Bad Things Happen: Good Answers to Tough Questions. "It suggests a painful time of transition for parents as they get accustomed to the lack of children and the need to reorganize their life around their mate. On average, parents cope very well with this transition."
Coleman feels that often the feelings are contrary to what most parents believe them to be. "Married men often look at this time of their lives as the happiest – they are no longer climbing a career ladder, there are fewer worries about children and more opportunities for closeness with their wives," he says. "Couples with only one child are often younger when the nest is empty compared to couples who have more children. If the marriage is sound, these couples still feel youthful – they may only be in their 40s – and still look forward to a full life."
Newman also feels that the subject of "empty nest" is overemphasized. "Not all parents are sad; some in fact are happy," she says. "They are pleased with the parenting job they've done that allows their children to go off on their own and be independent."
Crystal Kirby of London, Ontario remembered feeling a sense of accomplishment when her only daughter left home to be married. "She had lived at home during college, and it was time for her to be on her own, and ... it was time for my husband and I to be on our own, too," she says. "My daughter and I are extremely close, and with her out on her own, I don't feel any less close to her. Actually, I feel like we have more in common now than ever. Our relationship has evolved into one of maturity and common respect for each other. The mother-daughter thing will always be there, but now she's my friend, too."
Kirby, who never stayed away overnight in all the years she was raising her child, felt a sudden sense of liberating freedom when her daughter moved out. "I miss her presence, but I don't miss the responsibility as much as I thought I would," she says. "I did my job – she's a beautiful girl, and now it's my turn."
Like Kirby, many parents who are raising only children are well prepared for the day when they move out on their own. It's simply a rite of passage to them.
"Most only children have close relationships with their parents," says Coleman. "This closeness will last as the child matures into an adult."
Often, it is equally difficult for the child to adjust to the idea of leaving their parents alone, but that depends on how the departure is handled by the parents. "For some only children, there are issues of obligation and desertion to worry about," says Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., an author and psychologist in private counseling and lecturing practice in Austin, Texas. "If parents call in the obligation at this point by playing the guilt card, departure can be very hard for the child."
Pickhardt says that the child who is confronted with those feelings of obligation often feels that he is torn between moving forward to independence and being pulled back into the parental home. "Parents really need to let the child know he or she has their blessing to freely go, free from any sense of payback due," he says. "Parents also need to let the child know that they can lead full lives without depending on the child to fill their companionship needs."
When your only child leaves home, it will be a time of adjustment for both of you. By preparing yourself and your child for the new life path, it can be a wonderful transition into a more mature relationship.
"Let the child know that he will be missed because you love him," says Pickhardt. "Leaving home doesn't mean the end of your relationship. In fact, it usually marks the beginning of a very satisfying relationship with your adult, only child."
Newman reminds parents of only children that this is the time to support your child's forward steps with positive reinforcement, praise and encouragement. You are his only cheerleaders in the home. "The purpose of leaving home is to become independent," she says. "Remember your child's first day of school? You got used to it, and like school, a child going off on his own is another of life's happy, achievement events."
"This is the rewarding period for many parents and only children, when active parenting ends and adult friendship begins," says Pickhardt.
Sit back and enjoy your newfound freedom, and pat yourself on the back for a job well done.