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Dr. Ellen Neiley Ritter on Your Empty Nest
Ellen Neiley Ritter, Ph.D., received her degree in psychology with a specialization in families. A graduate of the Foundational Coaching program at the Institute for Life Coach Training, Ritter founded Family Transitions Coaching, a positive, strength-based coaching program that helps women and families develop balance, resilience and meaning in their lives during times of transition. She also serves as an advisory coach for Emptynestmoms.com. On the subject of overcoming empty nest syndrome, Ritter offers these tips.
In the first 30 days, what are the most common emotional responses to the empty nest?
For at least the first few days, the primary emotions are fear, abandonment, self-doubt and regret. We worry about whether we did everything for our children we should do. There is definitely sadness and a need to go through a grieving process. For some moms especially, this sadness can lead to depression. But moms—and dads—should also feel good about what they did. They raised a phenomenal child who graduated from high school and is now going on to create a new life as a young adult.
As a coach, what do you hear from parents as the primary fear or concern as they face the empty nest?
This is a dramatic transition that shocks a lot of moms when it happens. The primary concerns and questions are about how the change will affect the mother’s relationships with her child and her husband. Then issues of life purpose and quality of life arise, such as “If I am no longer a mother, what am I?” and, “What am I here for?”
What approach should parents take in dealing with their emotions during the first 30 days of their empty nest?
First, we must go through the sadness and be willing to mourn. The problem is if we get stuck in the sadness or a mild depression. Depression can stop our ability to think positively. We need to reframe our thinking to include more positive outcomes such as having time for ourselves. We need to take time to think about, “What do I value? What do I need to be fulfilled?”
What kind of mental preparation should happen in the first 30 days of an empty nest?
It is important for parents to allow themselves to be a mom or dad for the first day or two. And of course, they never stop being mom or dad; but after those first few days, they can now be wives, husbands, partners and individuals with new potentials to create fulfilling lives.
What should parents focus on when dealing with empty nest syndrome?
This is a time when it is important to be able to accept and rejoice in change. Too many parents spend the first 30 days or next three months focusing on Thanksgiving Day when the children will be home again. It’s important not to get stuck there. Focus on the positive—on the future.
What will help parents move through those first 30 days successfully?
Finding a support group is important. We tend to think that everyone else will think we’re crazy because of how sad we feel, so having others around who are experiencing the same thing is helpful. We can give ourselves permission to feel sad, but feeling good about the change is important, too. If parents are happy about their empty nest, they may feel guilty or concerned about what others think. Taking time to relax and build lists of possibilities is good. Also, a coach can be a good resource to help people start the process of forward thinking and brainstorming those possibilities.
What are the stages you see parents go through?
The first stage is grieving. I remember feeling pretty good about dropping my youngest off at college until I stopped at the grocery store, went down the aisle that had a snack he always liked and realized I didn’t need to buy it anymore. I sat in the grocery store crying! After that is a sense of loneliness, then a time of questioning, “Who am I? What am I going to do now?” Then parents might go through a period of being overwhelmed and excited by possibilities and by redefining expectations of self, spouse and child.
What can parents do after the first 30 days to keep the momentum toward continued success?
It is important to keep trying new things. Parents should explore who they are and what they want to do. Work towards a sense of self-acceptance. Be open to new experiences like a new job or going back to college. Now is also a great time to take care of you. Fathers and mothers may find they need to relate to their spouses more. This is a great time to rekindle life as a couple.
What is the belief you personally go to during times of change?
I believe change is always for the best, and that I have the resiliency and strength to make it through any change.
The best thing about change is…
…it opens up new opportunities for growth and happiness.
What is the best change you have ever made?
When my oldest son was in 10th grade, I decided to go back to school and get my master’s degree and then my Ph.D. in psychology. From there I went into coaching and my second adult life.
For more information on Dr. Ellen Neiley Ritter, visit www.familytransitionscoaching.com.