What happens when you send your only or last child to college? Mom and Dad need to give some thought to their next chapter. You don't want your college student to worry that you won't be okay! You also don't want them to feel frustrated with the neediness of too frequent phone calls so that they are distracted from making a positive adjustment to college. Starting to think about this transition a year or two ahead of launching your only or youngest child is a good idea.
If you've been an involved and caring parent, you want to plan for the sense of loss that can occur when your son or daughter departs for college. I like to remind parents that launching your child successfully into college is the desired outcome of the parenting project. It's just that it's an ending. You may have feelings of sadness, loss, grief, relief, joy and worry. You will also have some free time and emotional energy that you can redistribute to other people and causes.
After the college launch is a good time to develop your sense of self. What are your other interests and passions you haven't had time to pursue? Would you like to take a class or learn something new? Perhaps you'd like to volunteer for a cause you care about. In Orange County, where my counseling practice is, we have a great non-profit organization called OneOC that can help you quickly scan most volunteer needs in our local community.
It can be helpful to picture your life as a grid of about 16 boxes. While you are in the heavy parenting years, your children can fill many of the boxes. As you prepare to launch the youngest, it's time to re-examine your grid. You need many different facets of your life to be fully developing and keep yourself interested and interesting. Here are some boxes to consider for your life grid:
• Physical Health
• Physical Activities
• Outdoor Time
• Personal Growth
• Love Relationship
• Community Service
• Family Relationships
• Intellectual Growth
In each area, you can identify a goal and a small step you can take to move forward. It's best to take on just a couple of grid blocks at a time. This can be a kind of road map for giving your life a well-rounded feel.
For couples, I like to encourage you to think of launching your youngest child as a time for a renaissance for your marriage. Here's a fun exercise you can do with your partner about creating positive experiences together:
Have each partner write a separate list about fun things you liked to do together when you were first together, what you currently enjoy doing together, and what you would enjoy doing together in the future. Next, compare lists. You can negotiate trying some of the future activities that each of you would like. Remember, before your youngest child departs is a great time to intentionally begingrowing closer and having more fun together as a couple.
Entrances (like births, adoptions, marriages and remarriages) and exits (deaths, divorce, separations and transitions to the next phase of life) are challenges for the family system. Being intentional about making the transition to becoming empty nesters another positive chapter in your life helps everyone.
Actively creating this transition will serve you better than ignoring it until you come back from dropping your son or daughter at college. The whole family needs to make some adjustments and grow, adults included. You may find that you grow closer to your child as the space increases between you. It helps to remember that a part of being a good parent at some transition points is letting go with love.