Adjusting to Life When the Kids Leave

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Older couple; Adusting to the Empty NestMADISON - Oh the empty nest. Clean bathrooms, romantic dinners and no soccer games. It sounds great, but a University of Wisconsin therapist says that millions of baby boomers are in for a big adjustment this fall when their children head off to college.

John Scherpelz, a therapist at UW Health Outpatient Psychiatry, has helped many couples through the transition, which he said can be as jarring as the one after the birth of the first child. After years of longing for quiet time, the house can seem a little too, well, quiet.

"Some times couples are challenged to fill the void that used to be occupied by the children," he said. "Schedules and conversations no longer center on what the kids are doing – or what they're refusing to do – and couples may find that their conversation skills have atrophied."

They may need to acquire new skills, just as they adjusted 18 years before to midnight feedings, diaper changing and car seats.

"They may need to learn again to put thoughts and feelings into words for their partners, and to learn to listen as partners share their feelings," he said.

Scherpelz has helped couples develop hard-earned skills at expressing what's important and responding to their partner's thoughts and feelings in a way that helps them problem-solve.

"Learning the give and take of those conversations helps them feel like they're on the same team, which results in feelings of closeness, and solidifies the bond between partners," he said.

Feeling rusty and out of practice at what therapists call "bonding skills?" Here are some tips: 
  • Agree to work on your new relationship together 
  • Pick up a book, cruise articles from the Web, talk to trusted friends or consult a couples' counselor to sharpen your skills
  • Learn to express what is important to you
  • Respond to your partner's feelings in a way that helps problem solve and strengthens the bond between you
The two of you will also be learning to have a new relationship with your now-adult children, a skill that can also take some practice, Scherpelz says.

"Even though the children are gone, we want to stay close and connected to them," he says. "This is the time when our parental role shifts to a stance of much interest but more distance -- a distance is measured not just in the miles from home, but in the freedom we give them to live their lives as independent adults."

While it can be tough to let go of micro-managing your children's lives, Scherpelz says the benefits are worth it. The possibility of enjoying children as peers increases as parents allow them to make their own decisions, large and small, and to relish the benefits of the good choices they make -- and here's the hard part -- to learn from the consequences of their not-so-good choices.

"I want to be welcome in my children's homes and lives, and a more meddlesome parent is a less welcome guest in a young adult's world," says Scherpelz, the proud parent, with his wife, of two adult children.

Most importantly, this is a time to celebrate and enjoy your success at what can sometimes seem like the world's hardest job – raising children.

"You've succeeded at your mission of raising kids to be independent, healthy adults, and launched them into the world more or less as planned," he says. "Now's a great time to enjoy your independence, and your time to try new things: dump the minivan, downsize the house, keep different hours, try new activities, new foods, and new travel destinations."

Date Published: 08/17/2009

News tag(s):  parentingchildrenpsychjohn a scherpelz

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