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Preparing for the Transition to the Empty Nest

Jose Garcia-Cuellar, (LCSW-S) is a Mexican Immigrant, multi-passionate entrepreneur, licensed clinical social worker supervisor, and Keynote speaker with over ten years of practical experience in the mental health field. His focus is to empower individuals and families to overcome distress by guiding them to understand the impacts of life transitions. Jose has led hundreds of individuals on a journey to true happiness and has been featured by Texas State University Hillview’s magazine.

The Journey Towards the Empty Nest

Do you remember holding on to your newborn baby in your arms listening and loving those cute baby sounds? Do you remember that moment they gave you that half-smile while they slept and you just fell in love? 

As parents, there is an unspoken bond that goes beyond understanding and you just know you want the best life for them. As time goes on, they begin to learn motor skills and their curiosity grows as their brain is developing. At that time, it seems like your only task is to ensure they don’t bump into anything or grab something that could hurt them… oh, such fun times those were.

Fast forward a few years and now you have a talking child who has fully learned the word NO and has developed a good pair of lungs to yell and scream and challenge your every decision because they want to do “fun” things even if eating ice cream all day is not a healthy choice. 

A few years later, your child is now a teenager and you have to listen to them cry because someone broke up with them, or patch a hole in the wall because they got mad that they lost their video game. Who could blame those crazy teenage still-developing brains filled with hormones, puberty, and all kinds of chemical changes? Teenagers… am I right?! Looking back, you can now remember and enjoy the memories from your own teenage years because that’s what life is about.

Just as you finally realize you have it figured out or even if you don’t, your kid is ready for the real world and suddenly, the room is empty. So you find yourself sitting in their room on their twin size bed pushed all the way to the wall with dirty plates on their bookshelf, and you sit there and wonder… what?

Transitions in Parenthood

There are two main transitions that happen in the family system, one is when the children become teenagers and are asserting their independence by choosing their style of fashion or challenge why they have to go to church. This can be difficult for parents because there is a level of control that parents begin to let go of and it can seem scary.

The second transition is when your kid is now an adult and wants to live their independent life outside of the family system; that is the hardest because it’s not just a transition of parenting, but it’s a transition of self-identity.

There are different factors that influence the parental identity. We all have our individual identities, but within the self we also have sub-identities. For example, you have your personality, but your sub-identities could include labels like caregiver, doctor, parent, spouse, and so on. . IAs humans, we have basic needs and each identity requires its own set of needs.

Without a purpose, we could fall into depression because our needs aren’t being met. For example, I have spent many years in the mental health field, and I have developed certain skills. My purpose is to empower people by using those skills. My need as a therapist is to work with people that want to be helped. If people stop needing help, then my need to use those skills no longer exists. Therefore, my therapist identity would eventually be a loss to me as a person.

If you have been an active parent for 18 years, you have developed a sub-identity of a parent. Some needs you have may include caring for someone, financially providing, or putting your child first. If those needs are no longer being met and skills are no longer being used, then the sub-identity of a parent begins to get lost. This process may trigger depression, also known as the empty nest syndrome.

Tools for Navigating the Empty Nest Transition

Another factor is fear, which can be triggered by your lack of control– either perceived or real. Once your teenager has moved out or is living with greater independence, you might constantly wonder did they eat? Are they home safe after dark? When are they going to come to visit?

These are normal thoughts and fears, but not necessarily productive.. A helpful tool for parents is to reframe the thought that triggers the fear. Instead, focus on something different, something empowering. For example, if the thought that triggers the fear is “I don’t know if they are being safe” then the reframe could be to focus on trusting in your ability to have provided them with the tools and knowledge to make good decisions. Afterall, in those 18 years or so they must have learned a thing or two on the way.

The best way to counter this fear is to refocus on what you can control– yourself– and then gently remind yourself that they now have their own responsibility for their actions. You might also  ask yourself: Did I do the best that I could as a parent with the knowledge I was given? Can I support them in growing their values and morals?p Do I remind them that I will always be there if they need someone to talk to? These are powerful questions that will refocus the fear and increase your confidence in that sub-identity of a parent. As you explore these practices, notice whether anything shifts for you. Keep practicing, and keep noticing!

Stay Patient

Learning to cope with the fear and processing the loss of the sub-identity can be difficult. Transitions take time. The purpose of your parenting slowly changed;over the years your assistance became less in some areas and more prominent in others, such as the increase in dialogue and development of healthy boundaries and values.

Picture this: you are a tightrope instructor and you walk the line, teaching your students all the wonderful techniques to stay balanced. Your purpose is that of an instructor, and all of a sudden, the student is now ready to walk the line by themselves, meaning they don’t need an instructor anymore. Now, your purpose has to change. It would be harder to balance with two people on the tightrope, so your purpose is now to guide from the sideline. 

Eventually, you realize they can walk on their own, and your role as an instructor is no longer needed, so that identity of an instructor is lost. If you want to repurpose your identity, first accept you are no longer the hands-on instructor, but you are still part of the process. You are now the safety net at the bottom of the tightrope. This means your role and identity has now changed from active to passive, but yet remains a very important role. Your identity is now a supportive role, so that if anything ever happens and they fall from that tightrope you will be there to comfort them. 

When life gets tough, and it will, your young adult children will be happy to have a wonderful, supportive, and loving parent. 

I empower people to own their happiness during life transitions. If you would like to explore ways to repurpose your parental identity and transition to that next exciting phase of your life please reach out to me directly!

*Photo by Gus Moretta on Unsplash.

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