4 Things Parents Can Do to Manage Empty Nest Syndrome

Les Newsom  |  June 22, 2015

A campus minister's line of work often brings him to a familiar scene:

The hallway of the dorm is littered in broken down boxes and plastic wrapping. A red-faced, sweaty dad puffs as he struggles to assemble his daughter's room. The bewildered freshman is straining to balance a slight embarrassment of her parents presence with abject fear for what's ahead. Then there's mom... brow furrowed, nail-biting, and desperately faking a sense of confidence about how this day is going. 

It's Move In Day on campus, and parents all over are facing one of the greatest tests any parent ever faces: early onset Empty Nest Syndrome. Perhaps you've only spoken of it before in jest, but somehow you find yourself in need of real wisdom as the joke turns much less funny. How can we navigate this?

1. It's Not Them, It's You
Empty Nest Syndrome gets blamed on all kinds of things: the passage of time, a rebellious teen, a disinterested spouse, etc. However, the Bible rarely allows us to simply blame our circumstances for life's challanges. Instead, it calls us to consider what's going on beneath the surface in the heart.

In other words, my teenager leaving for college feels like a death because of the way in which my heart works. Human beings do not form attachments. We worship. We look to the creature rather than the creator for meaning, identity and purpose. All human dysfunction stems from this idolatry.

Start dealing with your student by admitting that YOU are going through something along with them. God is growing YOU through all this. There are few things better than a little vulnerability to begin this new phase of your relationship with your child.

2. It's Time To Rethink Your Marriage
Some have done well at this, others poorly, but rest assured that the intertia of time threatens to pull even the strongest couples apart. Statistically speaking, you are far more likely to divorce in the years following the departure of your children for adult life than at any other time in your marrage. Why?

You and your spouse didn't talk about it, but there was a season of realization early on that you married a sinner. Being married to a sinner is hard. Often, in the face of that disappiontment, you do what most couples do...you have children. But how easy, after pouring all your emotional resources into raising kids, it is to wake up 20-25 years later after the house has cleared out, look across the kitchen table and say to yourself, "Now...who are you again?"

Be prepared to rediscover your spouse. Set constructive time together to talk about the next season of life for you two. Grow together. See a counselor. It might be long overdue.

3. It's A Chance to Rethink Your Parenting
If you over-parent your college student (become the classic "helicopter" parent), your children suffer from never growing from the experience of making their own mistakes, choosing their own paths, and navigating their own relationships. College should be a time when you're surprised by the new things your children discover without any substantive input from you. This is a good thing.

If you under-parent your college student, you fail to give them the boundaries they need to succeed in real life. Just because you made foolish decisions while you were in college doesn't mean that the scars from those events can't be spared for your children. Students need clearly defined expectations regarding time management, money and relational responsibility. You're not "hovering" if you lovingly set (and keep) these parameters. 

4. It's Time To Call A Campus Minister
Campus Ministers know students. Relational contacts and network building are second nature to your  campus minister and your student desperately needs these. Even if it's nothing more than a simple invitation to a weekly Bible study, the people met during those visits can become life long friends.

Campus Ministers know administration. Let's face it: today's university system is a maze of bureaucracy. Your students will likely need help finding the most obvious of resources and a campus minister can help. Sometimes, on a bad day that first week, getting directions to Walmart can be a life saver. 

Campus Ministers know resources. Is there a mechanic in town that can fix my student's car? Is there an alumni who was in a particular major that my student can talk to? How do I get in touch with a counselor in town for my student? In other words, campus ministers have a range of value far beyond the regular programming of Bible studies, small groups, and one-on-one counseling. 

Empty Nest Syndrome is a real thing, but RUF seeks to serve more than just your student. Our prayer is for opportunity to minister to your entire family as your children take this next big step.