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Empty Nests Filled With Opportunities

How to deal with grief, free time and your new life without your child

It's back-to-school time and millions of parents with college-bound children are facing the prospect of an empty nest for the first time. After years of focusing on their children — helping them take their first steps, teaching them to drive and obsessing about where they will attend college — many parents feel lost once all their kids have left home. It is a complex time for everyone involved. The good news is that while this time of your life can be challenging, it is also a great opportunity for parents and kids alike.

Inevitably, no matter how proud and excited a parent is for their children embarking on their own journey into adulthood and independence, there is a sense of loss. Parents struggle with the lack of authority and influence they now have in their children's lives.  It can be a confusing time and emotions might affect other areas of parents' lives, such as work, relationships and health.

An empty nest means no more shuffling kids around to activities or last-minute homework assignments. There is less cleaning and cooking to do. Empty nesters end up with more time on their hands, and many don't know what to do with it. At the same time, relationship issues are magnified when children leave home. Many married parents have focused their attentions on the child for so long that they don't know how to relate to each other when the child is missing from the equation. Connections with friends can weaken if they were centered on the child's activities or common life stage.

A good way to go through this time is to remember that each life stage has both endings and beginnings. See this as an opening — a chance to grow. Many parents — sometimes called "empty nest opportunists" — report feeling 10 years younger, widening their circle of friends, reviving their love lives and learning new skills. This can be a time of reawakening.

Here are some things to keep in mind to ease the transition.

 Allow yourself to grieve. Give your feelings their due. Acknowledge that things will never be quite the same in your family. Feel sad about it if you must, but don't get stuck there. Let go, move on and embrace the life ahead of you. If your feelings of sadness are overwhelming, seek professional help.  

Talk with other empty nesters. Talk with friends who are going through the same life stage, reach out to other empty nesters, or join the AARP Online Community's Parenting group and see how others are coping.

Keep growing. Turn your energies to your own evolution and take advantage of the extra time on your hands.  Get involved in a favorite cause or volunteer at a community organization. Get healthier and get your finances in order. Start a new hobby or join a club. Now's the time!

Re-energize your romantic relationship. Re-establish yourselves as a twosome. Make a list of activities you and your spouse or partner like doing together and schedule time for them. Talk about your plans for the future. Get counseling if your relationship is faltering.

Watch your time. Infuse some balance in your routine and establish healthy boundaries on the amount of alone time. For example, meals can easily erode into a time of frozen TV dinners, so have a meal with your partner or friends several times a week. If you find yourself lonely and bored, find activities that involve others.

Talk with your child about using his or her room. Before you create that home office in your child's former bedroom, talk it over. He or she may be fine with it, but some children come home over the summers during college and still need space. A compromise might be a split-purpose room that includes space for your child.

Forge a new relationship with your child.  Most parents say their relationship with their adult child improves when the child moves out. You may spend less quantity but more quality time together actually communicating. Remember, your job now is to give your child autonomy, respect and encouragement, not to tell him or her what to do.

Celebrate! Writer Ellen Goodman said, Is there any other job that defines success as becoming unnecessary? Congratulate yourself for a job well done. You've been at this parenting job for a long time and your child is venturing out of the nest. This is a significant success. Relish it.