June 2007

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The empty nest.

Embracing The Transition To An Empty Nest

-- Flaura Koplin Winston, M.D. Ph.D.

Sunrise, sunset
Sunrise, sunset
Swiftly flow the days
Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers
Blossoming even as we gaze.

Lyrics from Fiddler on the Roof by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock

June marks transitions in the lives of many families. Younger children advance from one grade to another or from one school to the next. Older children might move out of the house for college or marriage. While these are often characterized as joyous occasions, the reality for many parents is that these transitions bring ambivalent feelings. Along with feeling proud of one's child, and gaining a new sense of freedom as daily parenting responsibilities shift and lessen, there can be a sense of loss of the (often romanticized) past. Some parents dread their impending empty nest and the loss of their child. Others look forward to it. Most feel both ways. The child may also have ambivalent feelings -- excitement about her growing independence along with worries about the new challenges she will face.

In an effort to re-live the child’s youth, some parents force "one last vacation" or "one last meal." Inevitably, these efforts to "freeze time" are ineffective in recreating the past, and often leave everyone unsettled. At best, the time together was fun but a bit uncomfortable. At worst, the time might end in tears, leaving the child feeling guilty for growing up.

Other parents might inappropriately push children to "grow up." It is sad to see older brothers and fathers discourage continued affection in growing boys because it is not manly. Other parents might force independence that they think is appropriate for their child’s chronological age regardless if the child is developmentally ready. In the extreme, some parents withdraw emotional support, encouraging their children to be strong, wrongly believing that emotional support at times of transition will interfere with separation. In these situations, the child can feel abandoned right at a time when parental support and encouragement is desperately needed.

I would like to suggest that if either of these scenarios describes you, you might want to try a different plan for family transitions. Transitions for parents and for children are not switches that go from one state to another instantaneously. Although circumstances might change abruptly, the emotional transition occurs gradually. Regardless of a child’s age, attachment with a parent should be preserved because it gives a child the secure grounding from which he can spread his wings and soar to new heights.

How do you achieve more healthy transitions? Start by taking a deep breath and relaxing. Then, be present in the present.

Let’s look at this in two parts. What does it mean to "be present?" Rather than rushing from activity to activity with your child, slow down and attend to them. It is not as much what you do with them as where you are. Imagine that you are meeting your child for the first time every time you are together. In some ways you are. I have often thought of my children as a series of people I have been privileged to know over the years – the baby, the toddler, the school age child, etc. For years, I have taken my children on weekly "dates," one-on-one alone time over a meal, for a long ride, shopping. I will value this unstructured time together more than any planned vacations.

All of us have had that uncomfortable feeling of talking to someone who is not with us – she looks at her watch, looks around the room, walks away mid-sentence, changes the topic to her agenda. Now, think about someone who really listens to you. There is a magical connection that takes place and warmth that accompanies this connection.

When you are with your child, stop, look, and listen. Fully experience your time together. Notice his body language – facial expressions, posture, hands, feet. Your goal is for your child to feel comfortable with you and a relaxed body language tells you if you are successful. Then, listen intently. Hang on their every word. Let them direct the conversation rather than peppering them with questions or providing them with sage advice. Allow pregnant pauses in the conversation. Sometimes it is just the act of being together without words that will create the closeness. Other times, they will have lots to say, especially around transition times. During these conversations, do not judge. Rather do your best to accept them as they are. Ask permission before providing advice. Take time during the conversation to let your child know about your life and what you are going through. Do not be afraid to ask him for advice. These conversations will set the groundwork for a strong adult relationship between your child and you.

Now, let's look at the second part of being present "in the present." Do not look too far back or too far forward. It might sound trite but it is true to say "what has been has been." Whether you feel that you were a bad or a good parent, you can’t change or live in the past. Just accept it and move on. Congratulate yourself that your child has gotten to where she is in life. Forgive yourself for what has happened. If you wish, apologize to your child, but get over this quickly. Your child wants you where she is now, and during transitions, this is not in the past.

Similarly, do not live too far in the future. None of us has a crystal ball. We cannot predict our child’s success or failure based on where he is or has been. We can only guide and encourage. (For more on pressuring your child, please see my previous article on perfectionism.) Just enjoy the blessings of the moment. If you are at a transition point, there is clearly something to celebrate. I like to think about it as the racer successfully clearing hurdles one at a time rather than the high jumper who succeeds or fails all at once. Each hurdle, no matter how great or how small, becomes an opportunity to celebrate and embrace your child.

In summary, what I prescribe to manage family transitions is to embrace the transition. Make it a time for celebration. Yes, it can be a very exciting yet emotional time. Live it together with your child. Share the experience and really get to know your child. This special connection that you create when you are truly together in the moment will be the foundation for a lifelong healthy relationship, even when you are apart.

Previous Columns

Raising A Mensch Section Editor: Dr. Flaura Koplin Winston parenting @ pjvoice.com
Dr. Flaura Koplin Winston is a practicing pediatrician, associate professor of pediatrics and Scientific Director of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She welcomes your comments, questions, contributions and suggestions for future columns.

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