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How to guard against the Empty Nest Syndrome



Last week friends of ours happened to become parents for the first time – an adorable little girl, large dark eyes and a thick dark shock of hair and the entire package presented in candy-pink flannel. Simply irresistible! At that even I was made to admire the 338th photo on daddy’s mobile phone. There are truly many perspectives and numerous situations where one can take a photograph of a new little addition to the human race! Especially the newly baked daddy is overwhelmed with exultation. According to his very own account (I am not inventing this, honestly) he occasionally sits for two to three hours simply in wonderment next to her crib and watches the little beauty while she is sleeping! Sweet, or? I agree! I already look with great expectations forward to the day in fourteen, fifteen years when the sweetheart brings a pimpled youngster home with her and introduces him to her dad as her first love. How I would love to be the fly on the wall! It is going to get very exciting when daddy’s crest is rising and he cuts that scamp who dares to make a pass at his jewel, down to size. . . .

Well, well you dear parents, the little darlings and the fledging. Always a recurring subject including in the course of therapies and during consultations. Admittedly with our new arrival that day still is far down the road, but it is eventually going to arrive. And that is probably also an advantage. Now the question arises, why do so many parents have such a difficult time to let go of their offspring when the time comes?

First of all that has primarily to do with the intensive protective instincts so many parents have by nature vis-à-vis their children. They are apprehensive their child could somehow come to harm – and even if is “only” by way of an unpleasant experience or disappointment (who knows whether that pimpled lad doesn’t break her heart? Or even – God forbid, inadvertently impregnated her because he wasn’t smart enough to use a condom?). Or they even doubt that their offspring is even up to a new situation (“no, we won’t let her go to school as soon as this year, we would rather wait another year!”) These decisions clearly involved selfish aspects: The less the children become dependent upon the parental care the more, for the parents (particularly the mothers) an important meaning of life and raison d’être ultimately disappear little by little as a consequence. That is very difficult to endure. Simultaneously many parents fear consciously or subconsciously to lose an overly independent child and at some point entirely or predominantly be left behind. The children’s transition to adulthood causes the parents to become aware of their very own aging process and thus triggers a multitude of insecurities and fears.

For many parents – in this case the mothers - the first pain of parting already sets in with baby’s weaning. In my opinion the tendency of many mothers to already at this point stave this pain off as long as possible culminates in downright strange reactions. I‘d say the in recent years again increasingly resurfaced trend of longterm breastfeeding as for instance (and at this point we are not addressing the issue referring to six or twelve months but rather whether the child must absolutely be weaned prior to entering school, or whether one should just wait a little longer . . ?) is certainly not one accruing to the child’s benefit (even though the proponents naturally assert that it does). Rather, behind it I see primarily mothers who don’t want a first phase of their child’s particularly close bond to them to end since in all probability they would have preferred to prevent having the umbilical cord cut in the first place. Obviously those are extreme cases.

For many parents entry into Kindergarten is actually a very difficult moment because it symbolizes the child’s first major evolutionary step into life and independence, and then a few years later the first day in school, also representing a challenge in matters of cutting the umbilical cord and letting go of the children. (By the way, I bet that many children’s so frequently propagandized “school phobia”, keeping many hosts of children therapists on their toes is simply nothing but the, by their filial loyalty subconsciously reflected parental separation anxiety. If the parents were to be better at letting go, then the children would not have to engage in “school phobia”. - But that only on the margin).

For many parents puberty is once again particularly difficult namely when their devoted cuddly offspring apparently over night metamorphoses into a prickly cactus and hangs a “keep out!” sign on his/her door. (For the first time showing up at home with the above mentioned pimply youngster or pimply bobbysoxer!) And for most a truly major obstacle in matters of letting go is naturally again the child’s actual exodus from the communal household. Which one of all these “letting-go steps” is experienced as the most difficult depends on many factors: The parent’s respective situation (as for instance the stay-at-home full time versus working mother), the overall quality of the partnership (is it also relevant beyond parenthood or is there essentially nothing else connecting us except the children?), the child’s personality (is he/she by nature timid-withdrawn or rather more self-assertive-enterprising?) and lots more.

In any case: In my experience the sooner the parents begin practicing “small” farewells, the easier it will also be to deal with the “larger” ones later on, (and vice versa). In other words: From the beginning the parents should take advantage of any opportunity to occasionally turn the children over, preferably for an overnight to grandma or grandpa or a good friend. They should please primarily use this free time as twosome-time – because beyond parenthood they still each are one of a couple and the more the partnership is cultivated over the years, the less painful the experience of letting the children go. Secondly, cherish it as personal space: for hobbies, leisure time activities, professional engagement, continued education or whatever strikes their fancy. The more complete the parent’s life in addition and also without the children the smaller the vacuum they will be leaving by their inevitable departure.

Parents who tell me that their child “simply does not want to stay with anyone else“ or else claim that they have „no opportunity to place their child elsewhere”, have a difficult time with me. (At this point many prefer to find someone a little more sympathetic as their family therapist!) Securely bonded children who feel that they can expect their parents (!) to deal with their absence without their parents’ (!) suffering from it only rarely have problems with being turned over to (naturally good and caring) familiar hands for a few hours or even overnight. In my experience, a child that in those situations (except possibly during the classic first year’s stranger anxiety phase) persistently refuses is usually influenced by at least one parent whose (frequently even subconscious) separation anxiety transcends that of the child’s. In actual fact the child isn’t the problem, the parent is!

Parents should always suitably celebrate those small farewells associated with each of the child’s evolutionary steps. Firmly established rituals already exist for Kindergarten entries and the first days of school however, parents should appropriately celebrate all other new beginnings, as well. After all, each time and in each instance it is a success and another major educational accomplishment! Does it not have to be the primary (non-selfish) educational objective to help the child becoming autonomous and independent of the parents anyway? Consequently there is a reason to celebrate rather than bemoan or be afraid of something! Parents can be totally relaxed and trust the indissoluble bond existing between parents and children: Children always remain their children, also and particularly when they are permitted to live their own life.

On the other hand for the parents these let-go steps also present a multitude of opportunities and chances, as well! Particularly for mothers who frequently and for many years defer their own interests and needs on behalf of their children. In case of babies and infants that is generally unavoidable but then, with each step toward independence mother also regains little pieces of her personal freedom. She can then use those to turn her attention a little more to herself: again pursuing her personal goals, professionally (re-)engaging a little more, leisure time activities, cultivating old contacts and more intensely devoting herself to her partnership. That protects her from eventually losing her own identity to that of a full-time mom and at the same time relinquishing her personal life-goals. Otherwise the children’s final departure will most probably precipitate a deep emotional crisis – and that does not have to, nor should it happen! In their very own interest but also in the children’s interest: Because from early childhood they already tend too much to disproportionately worry about their parents’ wellbeing, anyway. And when they then experience their parents to be clingy, they receive two bad messages at the same time: First of all that the parents see them as being incapable of taking the respective steps into independence (and that is not particularly helpful for their self-confidence). Secondly they develop guilt complexes when they observe their parents suffering from their “cord-cutting”. Those are totally misplaced and potentially prevent them from becoming truly autonomous during their entire life. Consequently the parents must continuously convey to their children that it is wonderful and correct for them to spread their wings and leave the nest – and that without constantly and worriedly looking over their shoulder to check whether the old birds actually do manage to make it without them.

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