Are Your Kids Empty Nesters?
By Jan Udlock
When Liz kissed her daughter goodnight, she noticed Annie was wearing her older brother’s shirt. “Does that help you not miss him as much?” asked Liz.
“Yeah, it smells like him,” whispered Annie.
With preparations of the oldest going off to college, away to the military, or leaving to get married, parents often concentrate on their oldest child and how much they are going to miss him or her. Lists run through their minds of the various items that need to be purchased and packed. In the midst of the planning, have parents overlooked anything or anyone? What about the other members of the family?
Younger siblings may slip by unnoticed even though they are impacted when an older brother or sister leaves the household. How can parents assist their younger children’s’ adjustment to their older sibling leaving? What are some solutions to this transition?
Prepare for the Departure
Involve your younger children in the big departure. Have them help by listing items that they think their brother will need while away. Talk to them about what it is going to be like with their older sibling leaving. “Younger children need to be included in prep-time as much as possible,” explains Janet Jones, Family and Parent Educator, Northwest Family Services. If a younger child hears the oldest is leaving and then is suddenly gone, it will leave the youngest feeling isolated and left behind.
Relationships between siblings are important therefore, it is necessary for the siblings to speak to one another about the new adventure. Have the older child sit down and talk with younger brother or sister. “Jessie took us out, one person at a time, to a special place before she left. She and I went to a bookstore,” says Ainslee, age 12.
Age of the younger sibling doesn’t matter either as far as having to make an adjustment as Jennifer Rodrigues, age 17, shares, “My mom encouraged me to talk with Matt about how I was feeling…and when I did, we cried. He told me he wasn’t dying; but I felt like he was.”
Stay in Touch While They’re Gone
Share with your child that you miss your son. Jones suggests that instead of asking questions, notice feelings. “It looks like you’re feeling down/angry/worried today?” She reminds parents to acknowledge feelings and empathize with the younger child.
Children watch their parents’ reaction to stress and tend to imitate their behavior. Strannigan, Family and Parent Educator, Northwest Family Services, reminds parents to model coping skills for their children. Depending on the age of the child, parents can talk about memories of the older child. You can play a game of “Remember when…” and laugh about it or cry about the memory. “Shared pain is easier to bear and brings healing,” says Strannigan.
Visit the college campus of the older sibling’s new home with the entire family if at all possible. “I was wondering how she lived and what her room was like,” says Ainslee. If the newly married couple is local, ask your oldest to invite her sibling after a few weeks to her new home. It helps for the younger child to picture where their older sibling is and adjust to the change.
Your younger child can stay in touch easily with her sibling with email, texting, or regular phone calls. Pick a special night to make phone calls no matter how brief. Younger children can then look forward to their calls.
Help your child put together a care package to send to big brother or sister. Ask your child which type of cookies he thinks his sibling would like. Let him participate in the baking process and talk about how you think his brother will love the cookies when he opens up the package.
You can visit the dollar store and find a few surprises to send such as liquid bubbles, a brush, a silly pen, or a funny toy. Have your child write a note and put it in the box. In addition, have your younger child accompany you when you take the package to the post office.
Family Dynamics Change
“With fewer children in the house, the ones remaining can receive more parental attention and/or scrutiny,” says Strannigan. He suggests taking advantage of the change by planning new and fun activities together.
With one less person in the house, there are more chores to be divided up with the remaining children. Chloe Anderson, age 13, shares since her brother is deployed in Iraq, “my sister and I have been forced to a new level of responsibility.”
Family relationships can change also. Sometimes since the older child is gone, there might be more or less conflict between the remaining siblings. “I used to hang with Jessie, but because she’s gone, Jake, age 17, hangs out with me. We fought at first more but now, we get along better,” says Ainslee.
When Siblings Come Back Home
When the older sibling returns, parents often want everyone to get along with each other much like holiday magazine pictures. However, often siblings revert back to patterns of relating to each other. Strannigan shares that his youngest daughter did not like the reminder that she was youngest and this feeling would be reinforced whenever the oldest came home.
A younger sibling likely inherited a bedroom or bathroom. Therefore, when the oldest comes home, drama may ensue. “The younger ones may have gained privileges or space that gets usurped when the oldest one returns,” says Strannigan, “and tension over turf can come with the territory.”
The best advice to parents is to anticipate the possible interactions and conflict that can result. Have a family meeting and discuss possible scenarios with the entire family before the oldest returns.
Family dynamics are always changing. “Since my older siblings have moved out, I have grown to cherish and appreciate my time spent with them so much more,” shares Chloe. Parents need to check in with each other and keep talking with their children. Conversations, like these, will help everyone.
Jan Udlock is a mom of 5 and a freelance writer. She has a few empty nesters in her home.