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With kids going off to college soon, many parents are facing the prospects of living in an empty house. But there’s no reason to live an empty life just because your child leaves home, says “Today” contributor Dr. Gail Saltz. Here's her advice:

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EMPTY-NEST SYNDROME
Empty-nest syndrome is the name given to the constellation of feelings many parents have when their last or only child leaves home, and they no longer have a baby “chick” in their nest.

After having spent at least two decades as a parent, it is only reasonable to expect that this change will prove difficult. You might experience the following symptoms: sadness, fear in what your role in life is now, major adjustments in what you do each day, how you view yourself, and how your marriage functions.

These problems used to belong almost exclusively to women who were the primary caretakers of the children, and those who had no career. They had no other identity to fall back on. Today both men and women may suffer from empty nest because many women work and men are far more involved in their children’s lives.

THOSE MOST AT RISK FOR THE EMPTY NEST:

  1. Those who have difficulty with separation and change.
  2. Full-time parents.
  3. Those who also struggle with menopause, retirement, and aging parents.
  4. Those who feel their child is not ready to leave home.

When you have an empty nest you really have a number of tasks to work on. The most important ones are encouraging your child to “fly away,” and finding a new relationship with your spouse that is not about your child.

The truth is, if you have done a good job, then your child will fly from the nest. It’s important for them to be happy and healthy adults, so you need to encourage them in as guilt-free way as possible.

If you look like you will fall apart when they leave, then they won’t be able to emotionally leave, which is necessary for their development. Of course they will always be your child, but now you need to find a more adult relationship with them.

Another problem: When your children leave, you are left alone with your spouse. That could be a great thing in that you finally have privacy and the run of the house. You can also travel and plan your future together. But often times you have allowed your marriage to stagnate, and once the kids are gone, there is nothing left to hold the marriage together. This is when it becomes very important for you to exert a lot of effort to reestablish romance.

It’s never too early to think about your empty nest in order to make the transition easier. Here’s what you can do to make this time less difficult and more exciting and gratifying:

1. PLAN AHEAD:
It’s never too early to start planning and talking to your child about the future.

2. GET TO KNOW YOUR SPOUSE:
Look at the positive: This is a time for you and your husband to rekindle your romance, have privacy in the house, travel, get to know one another again.

3. MAKE A DREAM LIST:
Make a list of things you always wanted to do but couldn’t because you were raising your kids. Maybe it’s pottery, writing or learning the piano. Maybe it’s finding a new career or going back to school. You are never too old to learn. Don’t pick something that will take many years to complete, but something that interests you.

4. AVOID BIG CHANGES:
Don’t make big moves yet. Give yourself time to adjust rather than suddenly selling the house or moving. It takes most people between one and a half to two years to fully adjust.

5. TALK TO OTHER EMPTY-NESTERS:
One problem with empty-nest syndrome is that you won’t get much sympathy from those who never went through it. To them it is just a normal part of life. So look to someone who went through it fairly recently. Talking with your partner will make you feel closer to him.

6. PREPARE YOUR CHILD:
Preparing your child is good for your child and it’s also good for you. This way you won’t have to worry: Can they do laundry? Balance a check book? If not, teach them now. If they are not prepared, they will continue to rely on you, which isn’t good for either of you, so make sure you have taught them the essentials. Then try hard to let them go and be proud of yourself for the fine job of parenting you have done.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York’s Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to “Today.”

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