Sweet Sorrow of Saying Goodbye to the College-Bound: Understanding and Coping with the Empty Nest, The

Sweet Sorrow of Saying Goodbye to the College-Bound: Understanding and Coping with the Empty Nest, The

Zuker, R Fred

TOP Ten Ways You Know You Are an Empty Nester

10. You’re surprised when the last few ounces of milk or orange juice are still in the refrigerator in the morning and not just the empty cartons.

9. The television remote is right where you left it.

8. You find a dirty, wadded up sock behind a sofa pillow and you burst into tears.

7. The change from a $20 is still in your purse one hour after you return from the store.

6. Your Frank Sinatra CDs are still in the stereo 24 hours after you played them.

5. The needle on your car’s gas gauge registers something other than “E:’

4. You spend $150 per week less on soda and chips and $150 per week more on longdistance phone calls.

3. You’re awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of silence.

2. When the phone rings it’s for you.

1. The phone never rings.

One of the most poignant moments in the life of the family takes shape in households across the country in late summer to early fall: the time when college-bound students begin to make ready to leave home. Parents of these students are ambivalent at best about the imminent departure of their best beloved. For many in my generation and a few years younger, the last of the children are in the final phases of preparation for their departure. What does this mean for the parents who remain behind? The home is suddenly empty of the cacophony and contentious conversations with the boisterous teen now departed.

Parents may find themselves rattling through the eerily quiet house pondering the mementos of a lifetime spent with the new college student. It is certainly normal for parents to grieve over a loss of this magnitude. For many parents the grieving starts before the student has left home. This may cause some tense moments between parent and child as both parties attempt to understand the dynamic of this relationship in transition.

The soon-to-leave student may become increasingly obstinate and withdrawn as if in a form of rehearsal for hardening the heart to make the final moments before leaving more bearable. Intensification of the use of alcohol and drugs may also characterize this summer of transition for the teen. The push for adult freedom and risky behaviors done to maintain acceptance in the peer group may perplex and anger parents who want their students to be safe and learn to practice good judgment.

This balancing act between granting freedom and drawing the line on clearly reckless, ill-advised activities is one of the most vexing dilemmas of parenting. The incipient empty nesters have to decide where the balance tips on the side of too much freedom and too little autonomy for the student who in only a few months will be totally out of the view of the protective parents. It may seem to the college-bound post-high school graduate that any attempt to rein in their behavior is the worst form of parental over-involvement.

The final days of the summer before the student leaves for college are intense and pressure filled. Taking care of the last of the purchases for the residence hall room (they are no longer referred to as “dormitories”), contacting the soon-to-be roommate and saying goodbye to the “crew” are traumatic events. This process may overwhelm some students and parents. Tears, most often of anticipatory anxiety, symptoms of depression, sleep disturbance, eating irregularities, angry outbursts, expressions of uncertainty over college choice or the burdensome cost of college are all symptomatic of this time. A recognition of the normality of these reactions and family discussions about the practical matters such as financial planning, transportation, orientation and registration will do much to allay these fears.

Parents are advised to ritualize the departure of the college-bound student. A special dinner, party, trip to a favorite place or something with special meaning to the family can do much to reassure the student that the love of the family goes with him or her. The ambivalence the family has about the departure of the student is normal. It should be exceeded by pride in their accomplishments and anticipation of the many rewards of the college experience. Fully expressing all aspects of these feelings may help dispel the understandable angst of the student on the threshold of adulthood.

Sally Huss, a gifted southern California poet and artist beautifully expresses this notion:

Nobody misses the baby because the child is here.

Then no one misses the child because the young person is here.

And likewise, the young person is not missed because the teenager is here.

But when the teenager is no longer there, all are missed.

And only when one realizes that there is no separation in love will the missing disappear.

Empty nesters are strongly encouraged to maintain close contact with the college student. E-mail is a terrific way to communicate with college students who are operating on an inverted circadian rhythm. While you sleep they are up and vice versa. Calling the room and finding them there is an oftenunusual occurrence. Subscriptions to the campus newspapers and visits to campus for family weekends (but not more than that) are welcome to the new student. Expect tearful phone calls and expressions of frustration and loneliness. These are part of the transitional process. Resist the temptation to “step in” and take care of the problems. Making their way in the new environment is an essential part of maturation.

Never forget the power of the parcel post. There is no more uplifting event than receiving a package from home with favorite cookies, toiletries and a roll of quarters for the washer and dryer.

Equally important is the re-calibration of the parental routine. Time devoted to the care and feeding of the late teen can now be redirected to hobbies, travel, reading, and rediscovery of interests shared with spouse or friends. But this should be a gradual adjustment. Frantic efforts to fill every waking moment only lead to exhaustion and an ever-sharper realization that things are different. I recommend to both new college students and parents that keeping a journal of feelings and events in the transition can be a therapeutic as well as practical way to monitor the shape of the changes taking place and how best to deal with them.

The comments from parents of one of the incoming freshmen at the University of Dallas encapsulates so many of the responses I had to a questionnaire on the transition I sent to the new students and their parents. The question is “If I could let my college-bound student know one thing it would be:

“She is a beautiful person, inside and out, a true child of God. She has brought and continues to bring so much joy to our lives. We just want her to go out into the world and enjoy seeking her challenges and discovering her life’s purpose. We love you!”

R. Fred Zuker has been in higher education for 30 years. He was worked in admission, financial aid, enrollment management, and student life at Duke University (NC),Tulane University (LA), Pomona College (CA), the University of California Riverside (CA). He is now the dean of admission, financial aid and student life at the University of Dallas (TX) and an adjunct assistant professor of psychology. Zuker holds an A.B. in history, M.Ed. in guidance and counseling and a Ph.D. in counseling psychology from Duke University. He has written and spoken widely on the transition from school to college.

Copyright National Association of College Admissions Counselors Fall 2001

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved