Letting go, keeping it together
WHITEWATER--Aruna Jha, the mother of two grown daughters, remembers feeling somewhat anxious when the girls -- particularly the older one -- started college.
“It was a little bit tougher when the first one went off to school. Parents know the transition is hard the first time you experience it. The feelings, concerns and anxieties are going to be a little different,” said Jha, an assistant professor in the department of social work at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. “With my older daughter, compared to the younger one, I was more concerned, more vigilant, possibly more intrusive.”
How comfortable parents feel about the separation often depends on the situation and their own background, but the adjustment is familiar for many families this time of year.
“If, as a parent, you've experienced college yourself and that experience was exciting, part of you has a sense of pride knowing your child is moving on to bigger, better things,” Jha said.
“UW-Whitewater is a school that has a large percentage of first-generation college students. I imagine if the firstborn child is also the first family member going to college, that's more anxiety-producing than if the parents themselves are college educated, or there are other children who've already gone to college,” she said.
The kind of relationship parents have with their kids also determines how a family deals with this separation, said Anna Lindell, an assistant professor of psychology at UW-Whitewater.
“There has been a lot of research illustrating that having the foundation of a warm, supportive and open relationship helps children -- and their parents -- feel like they still have that supportive and loving foundation even if there is a physical distance between them,” Lindell wrote in an email. “It's even better if parents have been able to help foster a good sense of independence and allowed their children to develop a decent amount of autonomy prior to leaving home, because then the transition isn't as jarring.
“For parents and children who may have had a rockier relationship before a separation like going to college, especially if parents were particularly controlling before, sometimes just adding that physical distance can make a world of difference because it forces parents to take a step back and let their child have some more independence, and it can actually make parents and children appreciate one another more. That being said, it can sometimes be a difficult adjustment for parents who previously played a more controlling role in their child's life. They may feel a greater sense of loss when their child leaves home for work or college, or they may try to continue those controlling patterns from afar -- which is becoming easier and easier with the types of technology we have.”
Other factors play a role in the transition, too, experts say, such as the age of the parents, what they're doing at that stage of their lives and what the family dynamics are. Parents of a new college student who still have children at home might find the separation different than those who face an empty house. And single parents who don't have a spouse to lean on could find it harder if they're no longer focusing as much time on their child.
“Whether you are a full-time parent or not, research suggests empty nest syndrome affects women more than men,” Jha said. “Women identify more with their role as a mom, so empty nesters can experience a mid-life crisis because they don't know how to focus their attention. It prompts anxiety in women, who may feel somewhat more depressed.”
“Certainly it's a time when you start to feel you're getting older,” said Joseph Fairbanks, a psychotherapist with Aurora Health Care, who practices in Lake Geneva and Elkhorn.
Letting go of a child, even temporarily, can make a parent feel sad. To cope, Fairbanks recommended reaching out for the support of family, church and club members, neighbors and friends.
“Using that natural social support is one of the biggest assists in normal times of stress,” he said.
“Anytime the loneliness and sadness are overwhelming, the feelings start to interfere to the point where you can't function, you need help, talk to your doctor. Talk to a psychotherapist, if necessary.”
Other avenues to pursue are taking up new hobbies or leisure activities or focusing on one's career, Fairbanks said.
Jha, who had been a full-time mother to her daughters, went back to graduate school for an advanced degree, ending up with a Ph.D. and a full-time job after her daughters were in college.
“More and more women are reinvesting time and energy, reviving previous careers or making an investment in brand-new career paths,” Jha said. “As a parent, having your children grown can mean a resurgence of enthusiasm and happiness for life. If you're truly in the empty nester's phase, take stock of your own life, re-engage yourself, follow your own pursuits -- you can now do that.”
After kids leave for college, couples may find they have more privacy and romance. Some find they have more money, too, although college tuition costs can add to expenses.
Maybe the most satisfying result is your new role in your child's life. You've created an independent adult, something it took you years of parenting to achieve.
Yet for some parents, it's still had to let go.
“People hear about helicopter parenting a lot in the news today, but it is not quite as widespread of an issue as it may seem – mainly because a lot of the things parents would like to do for their children, like choosing their children's college classes or trying to get a grade changed in one of their classes, are things that parents don't have the legal ability to do due to FERPA laws. (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act is a federal law that protects the privacy of student education records. The law applies to all schools that receive funds under an applicable program of the U.S. Department of Education.) But in other settings, you still hear about the occasional parent who is choosing their child's clothes for a job interview or making phone calls to their child's landlord about a maintenance issue--things that their child should reasonably be able to do on their own,” Lindell said.
“Parents engage in these 'hovering' behaviors for a wide variety of reasons, whether it is because they are anxious themselves, or are trying to help their children have better lives than they had at that age, or because they are worried about how they look to other parents,” Lindell said. “Helicopter parenting is also probably more prevalent today than in previous decades because parents are more worried about the economic climate and the difficulties of getting a good job after graduation, and so they may feel that they need to step in and give more assistance to their children than they might have otherwise. But helicopter parenting can also be initiated, in part, by the child as well - if they are feeling anxious or underprepared for more adult-like roles and responsibilities, they may ask their parents to take on a larger role in some of these tasks. The interesting thing about helicopter parenting is that it is usually done out of love, and parents' hearts are usually in the right place--it just begins to cross a line into helping with things that young adults should be developmentally ready to start doing on their own.”
Being a parent is a lifetime role. Today cellphones, Facetime, Skype and social media make staying connected easier, but there also can be pitfalls, warns Lindell.
“I think that the growing availability of technology that allows parents and their children to keep in touch does make many parents feel more at ease when their children leave home for college or work, because they have the option to get in touch whenever they want to -- it feels like a sense of security to them, knowing that they can be connected,” Lindell said. “For those parents, I think the technology does help ease the transition. I think that the kids leaving home feel that sense of security as well, knowing that they can still turn to their parents when they hit the occasional bump in the road.
“But for some parents, I think that these types of technology may actually contribute to some additional problems with letting go. With more and more forms of technology, parents now actually have the ability to call or text their child multiple times a week, multiple times per day even, and that is probably not healthy for them or their children when this transition should really be about helping their children develop more independence and personal responsibility.”
Therapists say setting up ground rules ahead of time helps. Decide on an agreed upon number of times to connect. Text, perhaps, rather than call.
Also, go to the college's orientation or other events for parents, where questions can be answered. Talk to friends or other parents who already have kids in college to use their experience as a source of information. Make a trip to the campus to see what life is like there, and lessen any fears and anxieties.
“Plan for that empty nest while your children are still living with you,” Fairbanks said. “I think preparing for that extra time and energy when your child goes away to college will help.”
“One thing that is important to keep in mind throughout all of this is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to navigating a child's transition out of the family home, and it does take some families longer to adjust to the changes than others,” Lindell said. “Families need to think about how they got along and functioned while everyone was still living together under the same roof to figure out what will work best for their family.
“They should communicate openly with one another prior to the transition about their hopes and expectations about how they want it to go. It is especially important for parents to listen to their children's thoughts about moving out and to respect their growing need for independence.”