How to Thrive in an Empty Nest

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For Maureen Stiles of Gaithersburg, Md., it was the empty shoe rack that did her in.

After the eldest of her three sons left for college last fall, she said, “I walked upstairs and I could see straight into his room from the hallway.” The missing shoes made it clear that he was gone.

“It was weeks of real grief before I could go in there,” she said.

Although college drop-off is a moment of triumph and pride, it can also be one of the most painful transitions in parenthood. Perhaps the sadness and anxiety come from the seemingly contradictory emotions of wanting your child to have independence and yet remain close as a family.

Experts and experienced parents say families can do both. Here are some suggestions for ways to manage this mix of emotions and strategies for building a new, exciting chapter for both of you.

Cope With the Empty Chair at the Table

“Parents really do grieve, but there is also an upside to your kids moving into this new stage of life, a real sense of freedom for the parents,” says Jeffrey Arnett, a developmental psychologist and the author of the book “Getting to 30.” In a national survey of over 1,000 parents of young adults, done with Clark University in 2013, Dr. Arnett found that while 84 percent of parents missed their kids once they moved out, 60 percent were glad to have more time with their spouse or partner or for themselves and 90 percent were happy their kids were independent.

Accept your feelings. If you feel sad, don’t berate yourself with reminders of how proud you should feel or how well other parents are adapting. Know this feeling will lift and give yourself time. If you don’t feel sad, don’t let the outpouring of other parents impact you.

Make plans to see your teen. Firm up plans for family weekend, fall break or Thanksgiving.

Schedule some fun. Plan a special activity for right after drop-off, whether it’s for an afternoon, a weekend or a real vacation. Having something to look forward to can take the edge off saying goodbye.

Laura Hanby Hudgens of Berryville, Ark., vividly remembers dropping off her son Jack, the eldest of her four children, at college.

“We were absolutely the sobbing-on-the-side-of-the-road parents,” she admits. ”Even though he was a 6-foot-2 young man of 18, I felt like I was leaving my little boy all alone — four hours away from anyone he knew, and it broke my heart.” She adds, “I continually reminded myself that loneliness and fear and all of those painful experiences are also important life lessons, and this helped me let go and be at peace with Jack’s journey.”

Stay Close When They’re Far Away

Parents can feel confused about how often and in what way to communicate with their college students because so much has changed since they left home. “We have a cultural lag,” says Karen Fingerman, a professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas, Austin, and our beliefs and norms haven’t kept up with the changes in the ways parents and grown kids relate today. “And that can create the stress for parents,” says Dr. Fingerman.

Her research shows that grown children benefit from parental involvement and help in their lives, as long as their parents are responsive rather than intrusive and don’t feel helping is a burden.

While experts say that there is no right answer about how families communicate, they do suggest some guidelines:

Follow your teen’s lead. Some kids crave daily calls, texts or contact on social media, while others need more space to exert their growing independence. “As excruciating as it can be, especially in the beginning because you want to hear all the details, try to exercise some restraint and allow your child to navigate their new life without you,” says Julie Burton, a parent of four children from Minnetonka, Minn. “Trust that you will be there when they’re ready to share with you, but that you will no longer understand the full scope of their life the way you once did.”

Grab a seat at the digital dinner table. Family group text threads take up where the real dinner table left off. Leverage technology to keep siblings in communication and the entire family connected. Conversations can be as serious, casual or funny as they were in the kitchen.

Create new family traditions around college. Sending personalized care packages, visiting campus for special events or FaceTiming for birthdays and family occasions, allow parents to share but not intrude on college life.

“My freshman needed, and received, less actual advice and how-tos, and more general confidence boosting reassurance,” says Melissa Fenton, a mother of four children from Dade City, Fla. “Our phone calls weren’t filled with, ‘This is what you need to do,’ but more of ‘I know you will be able figure it out on your own,’ and ‘You’re more capable than you think.’” She says, “Eventually the calls asking for advice became few and far between and were replaced by, ‘This is what happened and this is how I handled it.’”

Make the Most of This New Chapter

As the father of 17-year-old twins, Dr. Arnett knows firsthand the ambivalence many parents feel. On the one hand, it will be so hard not to see them everyday,” he says, “but on the other, my wife and I are actually excited about this newfound freedom, like being able to travel more as a couple.”

Children, too, relish in seeing their parents building a life that doesn’t always revolve around them. It also takes the pressure off. With the extra time you now have, give yourself guilt-free permission to:

Reconnect with long-lost friends. Social media makes it easier to look up old high school and college friends that you’ve fallen out of touch with because of demanding schedules. It’s likely that they have children leaving for college soon, too.

Set a long-term goal. Long-term goals provide direction, can offer a new sense of purpose, and practically, they force you to commit time to something each week that’s just for you. Take college courses online, train for a marathon, get a boating license or finally write that book.

Create new weekend routines. Remember those cold, rainy days sitting on the sidelines or through all-day chess tournaments? If you ever dreamed of spending your Saturday morning sitting in a coffee shop or just catching up with a friend, now is your chance.

As Ms. Stiles’s son settled into freshman year, her feelings changed. She says, “When your kid shows you what he’s made of, that he is all right in his new life, even if he no longer lives down the hall, you are beholden to respect that and move on, and that’s what we did.” She adds, “He was flourishing without us and we needed to flourish without him.”