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Empty Nest Kids: Before and After

As an Empty Nester, you now have one or more Empty Nest Kids. You probably feel you know your young adult son or daughter inside and out. You know her friends. You know his favorite foods and his favorite t-shirt. You know what kind of movies she likes and what kind of books she reads, or whether she even likes movies or books. You know which sports he likes and whether he likes playing or just watching them. You’ve heard what he thinks of the President and how she feels about global warming. She probably attended religious observances or at least traditional celebrations with you. You could probably finish a lot of his sentences for him. And it feels like you can almost read her mind most of the time.

She’s your baby still, no matter how grown up she looks in her prom gown, or him in his new sweatshirt with his university’s logo on it. And most likely your child’s views on most things have been similar to your own.

But don’t get too complacent. Some changes are likely to be coming your way!


In my experience, your baby will always be your baby, in the nest or out. My empty nest kids are 24 and 27, fully grown and independent, and sometimes I still slip up and try to mother them too much! It’s partly because of deeply ingrained habits—you know the old ones that die hard, as the saying goes. But it’s also because I no longer know what and how much they know about life and living.

As far as I am concerned, my job of teaching and protecting my children has no expiry date. Unfortunately, not yet having children themselves they don’t understand that. So, as a savvy parent I don’t usually offer advice and counsel unless it is sought from me. But occasionally I find myself trying to give them information I think they need to have, just in case they don’t have it yet.

The problem with that, besides annoying them, is that the freedom that comes with leaving the nest fills in many, if not most, of those missing pieces of information.

Freedom from living under your roof brings a lot of changes in your adult children. They make new friends with different values than your own. They are exposed to different cultural norms. They may find another religion intriguing, or decide that religion isn’t important to them. They may adopt new beliefs or new behaviors simply to fit in. They learn new eating habits and new sleeping habits. And they have the opportunity to try things out, to test themselves and compare their upbringing with that of others who they like or want to emulate or impress or just feel comfortable with.

And you don’t necessarily know anything about any of it!

Did You Know Your Empty Nest Kids Have Privacy Rights?

You may be thinking, as I did, that information about your college student’s grades, schedules and major medical issues would be shared with you—the concerned parent or parents, and possibly the people paying for the college experience. That simply isn’t so. Your child is considered an adult entitled to privacy about personal issues, and that is another part of your Empty Nest experience.

One of the biggest challenges I had when my daughter went to college was her right to privacy according to the University. She could tell me anything she wanted, obviously, and she did share a lot about her life. But the University refused to tell me or her father anything about anything except her right to privacy. Her grades were private. Her schedule was private. And the scary part we found out about later on was when she had a pretty serious concussion. Neither the University nor the hospital was at liberty to tell us anything. We didn’t know it had even happened until she was able to call us the next day. I don’t know how or how long it would have taken before we found out if she hadn’t been able to call.

So What Does The “After” Look Like For Empty Nest Kids?

The first thing you need to know is that your child isn’t really a child anymore. She’s legally an adult, albeit a young and inexperienced one. Be reassured that she already knows a lot more than you think she does. Remember, she’s been looking after herself long enough to have a ton of new experiences and new knowledge. And she is proud of it! She feels independent and excited to tell you what she’s learned and experienced, and she isn’t looking for you to challenge her. She only wants help from you if she asks for it.

As for the privacy issue, you just have to accept it and jointly figure out how you want to handle it. You probably speak with your empty nest kids on a regular basis already, or if not, you might want to consider agreeing on a day and time for a once a week call. That way, if he doesn’t show up for a call and hasn’t let you know in advance, you’ll know something is up.

If you have the opportunity to go to a parent weekend or on-campus event, get to know your child’s friends and room-mates. Give them your phone numbers and ask them to call you directly if something is amiss. And make sure that you have at least his room-mate’s cell phone number and he has yours.

Have your children put your contact information as an ICE number (in case of emergency) in their phone. And something else you can do is have your son or daughter write, sign and date a note, and carry it with them, that asks that you be called in an emergency and says that they give permission for you to be given their medical information.

Leaving the nest means big changes—for your child and for you, although you may not notice much until he comes home for a visit. How will you or are you handling those changes? I’d love for you to share your biggest fear or worry about how it will all be different. But don’t let that worry interfere with your relationship with your daughter or son. As I said in the beginning, in some intangible way, she or he will always be your baby. So never fear, you get to have that war and fuzzy feeling toward your children even while you relate as adults.

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6 Responses to Empty Nest Kids: Before and After

  1. Sorry if this is off topic.

    Maybe it’s because she is now nearing the end of her life and it’s on my mind daily, but I can’t get out of my mind the way my mother thrived when my father died 20+ years ago. Another version of an empty nest moment, and all the freedom and power she found then.

    • Dr. Dorine says:

      Thank you for your astute comment, Caitriona. Yes, the empty nest is just one specific type of life transition. Death of a spouse, loss of a career or job, even a move to a totally new and unfamiliar city are all other transitions. The process I take people through works in all of those situations, but my own particular version of the experience was in my empty nest so I have a special affinity for moms going through that.

  2. This is such an informative article Dorine. Especially the right to privacy. Good points to work with on that one!

    • Dr. Dorine says:

      Thanks for your comment, Lynn. The privacy issue is definitely a hot button. Obviously we all want our kids to grow up, mature and learn to handle what comes their way. Hopefully we’ve done the bulk of that before they leave, as well as creating a relationship where they call on us when they truly need help. It’s the gray zone that is so scary, though–like my daughter’s concussion–not serious enough to keep her hospitalized, but definitely serious enough to impair her judgement and to require her to have help. What if her judgement had been compromized in a way she didn’t recognize? I really want to raise the awareness here.

  3. Robine says:

    Speaking from the other side of the fence as the kid that left home to make my parents the empty nesters I think back to when I first lived in a dorm. It was scary in the beginning to realize I was essentially on my own and my parents were no longer privy to my schedule and grades. But oh so empowering and such a confidence builder.

  4. Dr. Dorine says:

    Thanks for weighing in with the youth vote, Robine! As far as I’m concerned, one of the main purposes of college is to learn to live and make decisions independently. My worry is that there is virtually no safety net. I’m not saying parents should jump right in and take over. I am saying that someone who knows and loves the student and has the benefit of life experience should know about potentially serious matters so that long term adverse consequences can be avoided.

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