Last kid off to college? Here’s how to cope

Q: I'm sad that my youngest son is about to graduate from high school. He’ll be a camp counselor for the summer and go off to college right after that. How can I minimize the emptiness I know I will feel?

A: After two decades in the role of parent, it's only natural that this anticipated change will produce sadness and fear about your new role in life.

As you no doubt know, "empty-nest syndrome" refers to the constellation of feelings many parents have when their last or only child leaves home. And it doesn't affect just women, who are usually the primary caretakers and who sometimes have no career or identity besides "mom." Men these days tend to be very involved in their children's lives, and may also suffer when the last child leaves.

You have several tasks ahead. The most important is to encourage your son to fly away. Emotional separation at this developmental stage is vital if he is to become an independent adult. He needs to know he can handle the world on his own, as opposed to needing his parents as a crutch.

Part of this process is not to inadvertently send him the message you will fall apart without him. He needs to know you will not. Otherwise, you risk making him feel guilty and resentful.

How to help your son separate from you? First, make sure you feel secure he can live successfully on his own. If that includes teaching him how to do his laundry, balance his check book or take his vitamins, do it.

Then, let him know you will be fine without him. Don't call every day, e-mail constantly or Instant Message him and demand an immediate reply. In other words, don't make him feel guilty if he isn’t in non-stop communication. That doesn’t mean that all interaction should cease; it’s fine to request that he check in with you weekly.

You must also redefine your personal identity and your relationship with your spouse, especially if children (or inertia) have been holding your marriage together. A child’s departure can bring problems to the fore.

And don’t delay — now is the time to pay attention to your spouse and reconnect with who he (or she) has become. Do a pre-emptive strike: Talk about where you two see yourselves in the next 10 years, what you look forward to in this phase of life and what you will do for fun.

Address your own needs, too. Keep a “dream list” of things you will finally have time to do. Maybe it's writing poetry, learning a musical instrument, training the dog, traveling overseas, embarking on a new career or reviving an old one.

But don’t leap into things too fast. In the first empty-nest year, you shouldn’t make any drastic changes, like moving. You will need this time to see how your feelings evolve, and you might regret sudden and enormous life changes. It’s not unusual to find yourself in a different place emotionally in just one year’s time.

It's helpful to talk about your feelings not just with your spouse but with friends whose kids have recently gone off on their own. You can both commiserate and see that life goes on.

Finally, for those who are thrilled at the prospect of being alone with their spouse — and are feeling guilty about that – know that you are not a bad parent. You are part of a happy, healthy couple.

Dr. Gail's Bottom Line: If you’re worried about empty-nest syndrome, it’s best to be proactive. Rather than dwelling on the subject, prepare ahead for your new identity so you can make this an exciting and liberating new chapter in your life.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to “Today.” For more information, you can visit her Web site, www.drgailsaltz.com. Her new book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” is to be published in May 2004.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist. Copyright ©2004 Dr. Gail Saltz. All rights reserved.