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Approaching the empty nest years with confidence

Published in For the Health of It Author: Douglas H. Greenlee, MA/MS LMFT, LADC, GCG

As summer begins to wind down, young adults are preparing for the start of college classes. Some are returning to build on the work they’ve already completed. For others, it’s the first time at a new school and living away from home.

For parents nearing the empty nest years, this time of year can be bittersweet. While satisfying to watch your child mature and get ready to move out on their own, the impending quiet house and changing schedule can be a big adjustment.

After years of love, dedication and sacrifice, it is no wonder that letting the little “birds” fly out of the nest is difficult and even painful. Be assured that with an intentional choice to release your child and work on embracing this new stage in life, you can enjoy the increased time and freedom and continue developing a wonderful relationship with your young adult child.

Select the areas below to review more information on how to navigate this time in your life:

How we change when our relationships change   

We are genetically built to be social. It is not a luxury: It is a survival need. As a result, we interact in meaningful ways with family and important others as they simultaneously do the same with us. Even though we are aware of and are actively involved in this dynamic process, it seems as if we are seldom ready to accept relationship changes that involve short- or long-term separation.

It is common to experience bittersweet emotions, finding that we might be laughing one moment and, perhaps, crying the next. Keep in mind that we are not going crazy! We are, however, experiencing the emotional distress of grief, and the depth of our emotional distress is comparable to the quality of our relationship with the family member or important other with whom our relationship has changed.

As our relationships change, so do we. This is a common experience because relational change is never a singular — from one person to the other — event. It is always bidirectional: We influence each other and often multiple others. This dynamic deepens the quality of our relationships with family and important others. We know this to be true when our empathy and insight enable us to predict a “good enough” understanding of ourselves in relationship with family or important others.

Finally, our awareness is borne out over time with our active adjustments involving role development, intimacy enhancement and physical engagement in the exciting or mundane activities of daily life.

Evaluate personal relationship history

Because of recent relationship changes, you might be feeling overwhelmed by current circumstances, but this will pass.

What is, perhaps, more important is that you take some time to do a personal inventory about your past relationships, assessing their quality along with positive or negative emotional impacts they have had upon your personal growth. This helps you to find the “exceptions” — that is, those relational connections in which you were valued for who you are rather than who you were supposed to be. Your positive relationships serve, in part, as evidence in support of your ability to be resilient considering family and important other relationship changes. At the same time, please remember that we are “built” to favor our negative memories because they help us to survive individually and collectively. They also give us an opportunity to reflect upon and challenge ourselves to learn from those experiences. This, too, is worth doing but wait and do it later.

What were your formative years like? In other words, what were your family-of-origin experiences like, and what have you done with your past, lived experiences? It matters because it informs the way you create relational connections now.

Acknowledge your strengths

If you are having a hard time believing that you have been skillfully managing relational changes in your life, then how about starting with your willingness to consider this stance as a legitimate reality for you?

Still not fully on board with this notion? Well, how about giving it 10 percent legitimacy as a reality in your life — just for today. And for every other day thereafter, why not increase your willingness to augment your belief 10 percent more until you reach 100 percent or as close as you can get to a fuller acceptance of your skillfulness?

Take your time. You are worth it.

Managing your distress

We must address the present. Try not to consistently avoid your emotional distress. Although it is one way of managing it, you will need to consider other strategies for more effective distress management.

In general, please keep in mind that when we avoid our emotional distress, we tend to make it bigger, stronger and more resistant to change strategies.

Mindfulness interventions can be very helpful, and your best option is to locate a therapist who can guide you in this process. Another good strategy is to locate a grief and loss workbook or something comparable to help guide you, as you work at managing your distress.

As part of your distress recognition and management, you always can focus on adjusting your overall distress by using a slow, deep breathing technique. In addition, you can give yourself permission to forgo your need to control your thoughts. It is better to just notice them and bring your attention back to your slow, deep breathing skill.

Keep in mind you may need to redirect your attention back to your breath frequently. Don’t worry: It is a typical experience. However, if you persist, this skill can be very helpful in reducing your emotional distress.

We also have other wonderful resources available such as, engaging social support groups in its various forms, embracing our spirituality, reviewing our lifestyle and making necessary self-care changes and reaching out to others through meaningful volunteerism.

Relational connection is as necessary to us as water is to our survival. Whatever your earlier relational experiences were, you are currently adjusting the quality of your emotional connections with your family or important others, now. Take solace in remembering that you have created a meaningful relationship for yourself and the other person. Think of it as a gift that you have given your family or important other. Your gift will serve as part of the family or important other’s personal resilience development. And, of course, what a wonderful opportunity for you to know that the quality of your relationship with family or important other is the very thing that brings them back home.

So, let me close and remind you,

You’ve got this! You didn’t make it this far in your life without demonstrating a loving, tenacious and resilient stance toward yourself, family and important others.