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Parents Suffer From Empty Nest Syndrome

As college freshmen across the country begin packing their bags for the fall semester, they're preparing to begin new lives — but the ones going through the biggest adjustment to college life might be their parents.

Anita Pace, of Philadelphia, Pa., is taking her daughter, Christie, to Villanova University (search) in late August. After 35 years of raising her children, Pace said she's nervous about what her own life will be like after her youngest leaves home.

"I'm kind of excited, but I'm a little apprehensive at the same time," Pace said. "I'm buying a puppy tomorrow morning and I told her that the puppy is going to replace her."

Like many parents faced with the prospect of college-bound children, Pace is experiencing the emotional turmoil of the so-called "empty nest syndrome."

Christine Schelhas-Miller (search), associate dean of students at Cornell University (search), said when parents send their kids away to college, they find that being relieved of the burden of providing for their children every day may not be such a relief after all.

“Parents no longer have control. They can have a lot of influence, but the fact that that they don’t have that day-to-day control is a big issue for them," said Schelhas-Miller, who also wrote “Don't Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money: The Essential Parenting Guide to the College Years." 

For parents who've spent almost two decades raising kids, finding they're no longer needed or wanted in the same way can evoke feelings of anxiety, loss of concentration and depression.

Johnne Armentrout, assistant director of the Wake Forest University (search) counseling center, said parents' feelings are often overlooked when their kids leave for college, while many resources are given to teens who are leaving home for the first time.

"It's a time of re-evaluation for parents about 'What do we want to do with our lives next, now that our role as full-time parents is no longer necessary or desirable,'" she said.

Armentrout and her husband run a two-day seminar for incoming students' parents, which offers advice on how to help their children and themselves make the best of the transition. The seminar attracts between 200 and 400 parents of Wake Forest's 900-plus freshman class.

When parents watch their children leave for school they often find that their relationship with the rest of their family — and their spouse — has changed as well. Marriages can be strained or even break up when a child goes off to school, said Schelhas-Miller.

“Sometimes parents are staying together for the kids, or sometimes they don’t realize until the kids leave that they’ve been neglecting their relationship, or find out that they don’t want to be together anymore,” she said.

But the parent-child separation doesn't have to be a negative experience.

When kids leave, parents can re-direct the time they once devoted to their children to other things like rediscovering a hobby, renewing old friendships, focusing energy into a marriage or pursuing new relationships, Armentrout said.

She also advised parents to be involved — but not too involved — in their children's college experience, which will benefit the whole family.

"It's not abandoning your children, but about allowing them to develop naturally in a way that they need to," she said. "They need to have a stable base from which to grow and change themselves."

Schelhas-Miller said one of the keys to making a smooth transition to college life is for parents and their kids to discuss their expectations for each other, especially over issues like money and communication.

Pace said she and her husband have come up with a plan to keep in touch with Christie: They've purchased a shared family cell phone plan. But Pace said she already talks to her daughter's voicemail a lot.

"This past year, I can just feel she's cutting the cord," she said. "But she's cutting it a little too fast for me."