As high school seniors choose the colleges they’ll attend this fall, many parents are finding that a refresher course in who they are is vital to being an emotionally successful empty nester. When her Teresa Cowan’s son, Cassly Sullen III, left for Prairie View A&M in Texas, she was nervous about him leaving home and her.
Cowan went from talking to her son every day to hearing from him once a month during his freshman year. She had to do something to fill the void. “I had to find Teresa,” said Cowan, a health science professor at Baker College. “She was in there, ready to surface.” She learned to cope by building her own network of friends. These days, she’s spending more time at her church, dining at finer restaurants, dancing with friends, volunteering, and changing up her wardrobe.
“I was on the hunt for outfits for a mature woman, rather than motherly clothes,” Cowan says.
Experts recommend that parents and soon-to-be college students talk early and often about the changes that are coming to prevent a sudden void on either end.
“If families aren’t very successful at communication when it’s not a high transition time, they usually don’t get any better during the transition,” says Kay Kimball Gruder, a certified parent coach and founder of Successful College Parenting. “Good communication has a ripple effect on sharing expectations. Have an honest conversation about what the student might want and what the parent expects.”
Cowan says that even though her relationship with her son has changed, she still plays a huge role in his life. She has shifted from caregiver to coach, and she talks to her son about faith, family and education.
Sullen, a social work and political science major, says his mother has done that well. He says she isn’t overly involved in his day-to-day decisions.
“I’m sure she does trust me at least 80% of the time,” he says.
That’s important, says Vicki Nelson, resource editor of College Parents of America and interim director of academic advising at Curry College in Milton, Mass.
“I think sometimes as parents, we don’t trust that enough,” Nelson says. “What parents don’t realize is how often their students quote their parents to us. Students are coming with those values.”
The separation has been easier for Sullen, but he says their relationship is much stronger because they value the time they do have together when he comes home for Christmas and during the summer.
“Because we don’t see each other a lot, it keeps us a little more understanding whenever we do have our minor disagreements,” Sullen says. When he’s in Detroit, he pitches in at home. “When I do see that something needs to be done that she’s too tired to do, I’ll try to carry the weight,” he says.
Cowan warned her son about her own new social habits during his first visit home. “I said to him … I go out on Fridays. I’m home by 1:30 a.m., and I want my house in order. So whoever has to jump out the window, jump out the window. If you won’t be home by 1:30 a.m., let me know. I have not had a problem since.”