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10 Things To Consider When Navigating The Empty Nest

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This article is about adjustments needed when navigating the empty nest stage of life.

Economic and cultural changes in the past decade or two have changed the norm and expectations for “Empty Nesters.” We experienced these changes first hand after we launched all our children off to college and their lives.  We downsized from a 5 bedroom house to a 2 bedroom townhouse because they were all gone from the house.  Within a week of moving into the smaller dwelling, they started coming back, only this time with spouses and pets.  For the next 8 years, they would come and go for periods of a year or more. At one point 3 of our 4 adult children were living with us, 2 of them with spouses.  Our situation is not that abnormal.  It was not as troublesome as the experiences of others we have talked to.  We enjoyed having them back and were glad to be able to help them save money so they could accomplish various goals.  If you are at or near the “empty nest” stage, we would like to pass along some of the things that helped us successfully navigate this transition.

  1. Change of role with adult children - It is no longer our job to parent them, to take care of them physically, emotionally, spiritually.  This can be a tremendous adjustment for parents, especially for parents who have been overly involved in their children’s lives - not allowing their children to become responsible for themselves and their decisions or letting them suffer the consequences for their actions and/or decisions. 
  2. Change of relationship - The parental relationship changes from parent/child to parent/adult. Parents are no longer responsible to provide for their needs and to nurture them and protect them. We still love them and are concerned for their health and well-being, but the job of taking care of them belongs to them now.  They are responsible for themselves.  They are responsible for their decisions, good and bad, for their livelihood, their basic needs, their emotional and spiritual needs.  We do not have to like their choices, etc., but those choices are theirs to make.  If there are consequences to face because of choices they make, they own those consequences. The parent does not own any part of it, unless the parent was involved in it.
  3. Establish boundaries! “Here’s where I stop and you begin.” Letting go of their problems/decisions/consequences for choices they make - I am not responsible to rescue them or tell them what to do or how to do it.  It is not my job to give unsolicited advice or suggestions.  I can offer ideas, suggestions and advice if I am asked by my adult child to do so.  I can ask permission to give any of the above, but if they do not want to hear any of it, I need to let it go and be ok with it.  I do not have to like what they choose to do or where they choose to go or who they choose to spend their time with.  These are their choices to make.  I can pray for them that they might choose wisely and do what honors God.  If we have a conversation about things that we disagree about, we do not have to have that conversation over and over again.  They know where we stand and why, and it is not their job to change us nor is it our job to change them.  Again, we can pray for them and agree to disagree.  We can choose how to have a relationship with them even when we do not agree with them. We all make mistakes and need to own them and the consequences for them.  We can be encouraging and come alongside our adult children to give them strength and show we care without intruding on their responsibility to be adults.  Boundaries are extremely necessary for us to set and for them to set.
  4. What do I do with myself? What are the things I am interested in, things I have wanted to do but did not have time to do when I was raising my children.  What would I like to try?  Maybe it is volunteering for various community or church related projects.  Maybe it is teaching a class or taking a class or working out or learning a new job or sport.  Maybe it is getting back into doing something you have enjoyed in the past such as working out, swimming, tennis, walking, visiting with friends, etc.
  5. Who am I now? I am uniquely me created by God to be just who I am.  However, I may have gotten lost while raising children, taking care of everyone else’s needs and helping them to accomplish their goals.  It is not wrong to be involved with your children when they are growing up.  However, it is important to continue to grow yourself during that time.  If that has not happened, now is the time to pursue some things you have always wanted to do.
  6. Making plans for future – now you have the time.  Do not just sit down in a chair and do nothing. Do not sit and sink into a pit of despair or regret.  “Forgetting what is behind and pressing on toward the goal………” Regret does not change anything.  We cannot change what has already happened, but we can grow from our experiences and move forward.
  7. Redefining marital relationship - who are we without our children here?  Learn to have fun together again.  You are free to “move about the country” without all the worries of who will take care of the children, etc. 
  8. How to have fun with spouse.  Find some activities you enjoy doing together.  Take time for each other and get back to doing some of the things you did before you had kids.  Play together.  You are only as old as you let yourself feel!  We can look at age as a gift from God, we are better people than we were when we were younger.  Each year we can be better. Laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh………………………….
  9. Find things to talk about with your spouse.  Make sure they are not topics that create tension or arguments: Learn how to express your thoughts and feelings and opinions understanding that you don’t have to agree about everything, even agree to disagree about some things.  If you are having difficulty coming up with things to talk about, brainstorm ideas with your spouse or get a list of conversation starters from a book or a counselor.  Use these to start conversations with your spouse.  Make it fun.  This is a tool to help you get started.  After you have used it for a while, you will probably be able to get by without the list.  It will be more natural for you to talk about all kinds of things.
  10. Enjoying time with friends.  If you have friends who are also at the empty nest state, this is a great time to begin spending more time with them.  If you have not had time to establish close friendships, this is the time to start doing so.  It is absolutely amazing the number and type of groups that meet regularly on a wide variety of interests.  Review the classes and opportunities offered through your local Park District – get a copy of their quarterly newsletter and look over the offerings.  Check the quarterly catalog from your local community college and discuss what they offer that you might be interested in.  If you are involved in a church or religious take a good look at the volunteer opportunities that are available.  Being involved as a couple or individual in an activity that you enjoy is a great way to meet people, get involved and have fun.

Transitioning to the empty nest stage can be tricky for parents and adult children alike.  Some parents have tremendous difficulty allowing their children to step out on their own.  Likewise, there are many adult children who would rather not accept the responsibilities of adult life and can be quite manipulative in their insistence that mom and dad still plow the road for them.  Wherever you find yourself in your current circumstances, pick an area from those we have addressed and begin introducing change into your life and enjoy this next part of the journey.

Dr. David McFadden is a relationship expert working with his partner and wife helping struggling couples find their way back to wholeness in their relationship.  Receive your free copy of the Better life magazine filed with articles with topic from taking good care of yourself, resolving conflicts in your relationship and discovering how to have success in your life.

This article was originally published at The Village Counseling Center newsletter. Reprinted with permission from the author.

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