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College Advice

Empty nest syndrome- How not to get blind sided? (Laura Kastner)

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What to expect before your child leaves for college, and what may happen the first few months of college? How to get your kids to do their college applications? How to deal with senioritis?  How to avoid being blind sided by the empty nest syndrome?  CJ interviews Dr. Laura Kastner,  a clinical psychologist and clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at University of Washington, about her book “ The Launching Years: Strategies for Parenting from Senior Year to College Life” .

What is the Empty Nest Syndrome?

by CJ Liu

The Empty Nest syndrome happens after kids come of age and leave their parents.  While some parents experience it when their kids go off to college, others may not experience empty nest syndrome until their kids get married. While both parents have to go through a period of letting go of their kids, a women’s sense of loss is compounded by menopause.  During this time period, many families may face the additional hardship of either the loss of a parent (s), or new roles as caretakers for their own elderly parents. Empty Nest Syndrome refers to feelings of depression, sadness, and/or grief experienced as a result of the many life transitions that happen during a block of time.

Why is the Empty Nest Syndrome so hard?

During the two years before your child leaves for college, teens seek more independence and distance.  Parents start to lose the authority they once had and the family dynamic starts to shifts. This shift in a parent’s role can often come as a surprise especially during a time when parents want to spend more time and grab all the precious time imparting their wisdom before their child leaves the nest.

“Ironically, what happens to parent/child relationship during early adolescence is a mirror image of what occurred some ten years earlier, except that this time, the proverbial shoes are on the parents’ feet.  

When the child was a toddler and his parents rather suddenly changed the rules, thus asserting their authority, the child felt himself to be losing control of the relationship. He (the child) became, therefore, insecure and tried every conceivable means (i.e.- tantrums, defiance, etc.) of keeping things the way they had been, of keeping himself at the center of his parent’s attention.  Now, however, it is the child who initiates the change in rules”. Rosemond, J. (1998). Teen-proofing: A revolutionary approach to fostering responsible decision making in your teenager (p. 36). Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel.  Get the full article by clicking here.

One of the hardest things for parents to do during this transition is to let go.   According to Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker, a psychologist and family counselor, this transition can be harder for parents who have devoted most of their time and energy raising kids, as they feel a crisis of identity, purpose and meaning. This may be compounded for some parents who lose the sense of community created by school activities.

While this empty nest period can be challenging, research shows that it can be a time of opportunity.  Parents can look forward to a life where they have more spontaneity, develop your own interests, reconnect with your partner in a new way, and have more sexual intimacy.

Dr. Phil offers the following advice on how to shift perspectives during this time as an evolution in parenthood and identifies this period as a time where a parent can find out who they really are and where their interests lie:

“Know that it’s normal to feel very emotional with the situation at first, so don’t keep yourself from feeling the emotions you have. ”Cry when you need to cry. But then also give yourself a pat on the back and be proud that you’ve gotten them to this point,” Robin (Dr. Phils’ wife) says.  But eventually, you do have to come to terms with one thing: Your child is moving into another phase of his/her life, and you need to also.  If your child was filling the role of taking care of you mentally and emotionally, or if he/she was your constant companion, it’s time to let your child start his/her own life. This will force you to reassess your life and find out who you really are and where your interests lie.

Understand that motherhood is an evolution. You’re now a tremendous resource for bigger life decisions involving career, choosing a mate, etc. You won’t stop being a mother to your child, you just have to parent from a distance and in a different way. Dr. Phil recommends putting a different frame around your thoughts. “Say, ‘I’m not going to stop being their mom, I’m just moving to the next phase. I’m going to start being their resource, I’m going to be their soft place to fall on the phone, on weekends and I’m going to become a mentor in a different phase in their life.’ It’s just ever changing. You’re not going to stop being an involved mom, you’re just going to change phases.”

Remember that your son or daughter isn’t moving away from you — they are moving toward his/her own life. That is something you should be proud of and admire. You contributed to their growth! “ – Source:

BLOG POST FROM THIS POINT FORWARD HAS BEEN CONDENSED AND EDITED with excerpts pulled from Kastner, L., & Wyatt, J. (2002). The launching years: Strategies for parenting from senior year to college life. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Parent Baggage – Whose life is it anyways?

During this time, it’s important for parents to have a clear separation from their own “baggage” about leaving the nest when they were teens from their child’s experience of leaving home.  Often times this “baggage, which Dr. Laura Kastner describes as a parent’s unresolved life disappointments or fears, make this time even more trying and confusing for a parent.

“Proper boundaries keep parents accountable for knowing the difference between their children’s challenges and their own.  When parent’s boundaries are firm, they have clarity about their own personal feelings and desires, which they can distinguish from their Seniors.  This allows parents to respond to their Senior’s needs and to guide and support them appropriately during launching”p31

Laura Kastner offers some questions to consider to enable parent to keep their own stories in check (p78):

  • Is there anything in your background that makes you care too desperately about a choice?
  • How is where you did or didn’t go to school affecting your hopes for your child?
  • Are you so attached to a choice that you’re possibly living through your child?
  • Do you see your child as vulnerable in some way? Is your preferred college choice ‘Prefect” because of issues related to vulnerability (dressed, anxious, learning differences, illness), but does your child want to take the risk?
  • Has your competitiveness blindsided you to your child’s needs in any way?
  • Are you measuring success in college choice externally, by what others define as success, instead of how a choice might enhance qualities that make for a successful life?
  • Are you overreacting? In the scheme of things, will your child’s future be truly compromised by attending school X instead of school Y?

What are issues parents can explore before they face an empty nest?

Kastner offers a checklist below for issues parent’s can consider personally working on before they become empty nesters (p18).

  • Despite my major commitment to parenting, I have other parts of my life I look forward to developing after my last child leaves home
  • My marital status does not concern me at this point
  • If married, I’m satisfied with the quality of my marital relationship, or if single, I’m satisfied with my current intimate relationship(s)
  • I know there will be plenty of pleasures in my role as a parent after my children leave home
  • I feel capable of both supporting my adolescent’s independence and his/her needs for extra help during setbacks
  • I have not expected that my adolescent’s graduation automatically means stressful changes for me
  • Facing the challenges of middle age does not overwhelm me
  • My current employment status is satisfactory to me
  • I am happy with the friends I have at this point in my life
  • My emotional and physical health is currently satisfactory

“Generally speaking, parents tend to confront their child’s leave-taking with more awareness and multidimensional thinking about its significance- the end of my active child-rearing years, my own aging, my changing relationship with my child.  Children are feeling a lot too, but their anxiety and anticipation are often more personally targeted at their next step and their free floating fear of the unknown. Will I like my roommate? Will I make friends? Will the courses be too hard? P 130

How to mentally prepare while the nest is full?

The launching years are the last two years in High School where teens start to shed their reliance on parents, and become less dependent on their parent’s emotional support and authority.  It’s during this time that parents have to let go of their old parent-child relationship and forge a new one based on coaching and mutually-agreed upon ways of staying close.

Your teens will be spending the next part of their lives setting their own direction and gaining the competencies for being on their own.

What to exepct during Junior year?

Jump to the answers you want to hear by clicking on time stamps within the video:

  • 0:28 What are key stress points for Juniors in high school?
  • 1:15 What are the challenges of the Junior year?
  • 2:52 What is a rational approach for college visits?
  • 3:30 How can we help kids through standardized testing?
  • 4:20 Why parent’s need to be conscious of the developmental transition they are going through too?
  • 7:43 What is happening in the emotional social lives of Juniors? Why parents need to be careful not to have tunnel vision on the college thing?
  • 9:09 How can you keep your kids on the college track when they are having a melt down?
  • 10:42  When do you get involved with your teen’s business?
  • 13:53 How parent’s can remove the stigma of getting counseling?


How to support your child during Senior Year


Launching a child from home is second only to child-birth in its impact on a family. Teens find their powers of self-reliance stretched to the breaking point. CJ interviews clinical psychologist Dr. Laura Kastner on the upheaval that begins senior year of high school with the nerve-wracking college application process and continues until your child leaves for college. into the first year of life away from home. Get some down-to-earth advice for staying on an even keel throughout this exciting, discomforting, and challenging time.

Get more on Laura: and more on SR. Year @


1:21 Why is your Senior soiling the nest?
2:58 Why is it so hard to get applications written? How may launch anxiety factor in?
7:32 Why is your organized kid procrastinating application writing?
13:36 How can you get help with writing college apps?
18:23 How can parents talk about your college budget and avoid any sense of guilt?

23:05 What is senioritis?
23:58 Why does it happen?
25:50 What kind of identity shifts happen midway through Senior Year?
26:54 Power surges: How can you negotiate with your child and give them more freedom to take risks and still maintain your sanity?
28:24 How can parents effectively navigate these power surges?
33:37 What are some policies parent’s should consider setting?

40:33 Laura demonstrates how you may talk to your child who wants to go go a unchaperoned party where you know drinking will be involved

46:41 What should you say about college rejection?
49:04 How do you help your kids decide which college to select?


Most seniors leaving home are worried about leaving home at least as much as their parents.   During this time, teens feel the pressure from well intentioned questions from relatives, strangers, and neighbors about where they are applying to school or doing next with their life.  It’s common that kids could feel sized-up and judged.  It’s important for parent’s to be emotional ballast for their anxiety during this time and not add to the pressure they already feel.

“Adolescents need calm, steady parenting during the fall of their senior year, whether it is in the form of pure nurturing, limit-setting on various behaviors or guiding them through their applications.  Different seniors need different degrees and types of support, and the magic of good parenting lies in sizing up what the parent’s needs are and what the child’s needs are and sticking to that business” p45

Jump to the answers you want to hear by clicking on time stamps within the video:

0:10 How does Senior Year break out from Fall, Spring, Summer?

2:46 What can parents do to help their teen get their college apps out and on time?

6:06 What happens during the Winter of Senior Year? How do you deal with college rejections?

8:37  How can you help your child decide which college to go to?

13:16 How can you balance college debt associated with “brand” schools?

16:06 Is your life over if your kid doesn’t get into an ivy league school?

18:37 What happens during the Spring and Summer?

22:13 What happens when your kids don’t follow your rules?

24:24 How your parenting style may change during this time?

Checklist: Is your child ready for launch?

In Laura Kastner’s book “The Launching Years” she offers some skills that you may want to access and work with your adolescence to develop.  She suggests that adolescents need to be armed with the following skills:

  • Problem-solving abilities to handle most challenges that come with life after high school.
  • Social skills needed for living in a new social setting and interacting with new people
  • Intellectual and academic skills they need for the kind of experience they will choose after high school
  • Emotionally secure enough to leave home after graduating from high school and not be homesick
  • Good decision-making skills related to money
  • Emotional skills to handle romantic involvements
  • Ability to set goals and meet them
  • Moral values to guide their actions and understands consequences of their behavior ((Page 17)

Choosing College

Launching a child to college feels like one of our last hand-on parenting acts. While it’s common to feel invested in giving your child the best foot forward, Kastner reminds us that there is no empirical research that shows where a person attends college correlates to occupational success, nor does the specific college or grades matter in the longer term. What does matter is that your teen finish their degree.

Kastner suggests that parents think about college as an identity decision, and that their child choose a school based on the forming identity of who they are, their experiences they pursue, values they embrace, aptitudes they build on, and where their passions lie.  She offers the following areas to explore with your child (p15):

  • Is my child building strong interests and pursuing them both inside and outside of school?
  • Does he seem motivated to do well, wherever he goes?
  • Does he know how to take full advantage of whatever resources a college has?
  • Is he engaged, aware, resilient, responsible, and committed to living a productive life?
  • Is my child developing a life based on worthy values and goals?

In addition, she suggests that if a parent weighs in too heavily in the decision, it might not result in a child feeling responsible or accountable for their decision. If your child asks for your help, you can ask questions, such as “have you thought about how class size will affect your experience?”, “what kinds of learning situations work for you?”,”what do you want out of college?”  If they are having a hard time of deciding which college to go to, then help gain clarity by asking some questions, such as:   “How much of what they think about the school is hearsay and solid information?”, “what do they want to study?”, “are they wowed by the facilities or quality of teaching that they observed?”, “what did they see in the student body as a whole and not just the personable tour guide?”, “what about the setting? How would it feel to be there?”

College applications

While it may be tempting to write your child’s essay and micromanage the whole process, it’s best to let your child go it alone – especially if they have consistently performed well in school and made deadlines.  Kastner cautions that the risk onf interfering is that you short-circuit your child’s own feelings about their responsibilities and that your children don’t own meeting the impending deadlines.. Plus, for some kids the more intense a parent’s involvement, the more likely children are to stonewall.  She forewarns that during this time that it is important to choose battles carefully and try to minimize blow-ups.

“Badgering, pleading, bribing, and threatening are off limits, but small acts of behind-the-scenes technical support are legitimate and usually acceptable to seniors, though often hard to get right.  Grounding your  senior for two weeks until applications are done will strike most seniors as overbearing, just as rescuing your child by micromanaging the process is a problem.  On the other hand, some busy seniors who have trouble prioritizing competing interests will benefit from a parent’s gentle nudging and setting up of a quiet space and time-plus great snacks.  By all means make sure your child stays in charge and does the real work and if your senior resists your efforts, know when to back off.  Whatever you provide should be nurturing, supporting, and in the background, perhaps making a phone call to set up an appointment or addressing envelopes, or photocopying forms, for example ”- p28

While it’s easy to get frustrated with your child’s procrastination in writing essays, think about how hard it would be to summarize your life in 250 words.

One way to get the job done and give your kids freedom is to make an agreement with your teen that if they turn everything in at least 1-2 weeks before it’s due, you, in turn, will not talk about applications and deadlines.  This way, you can get involved if needed and still have time to respond.  Another great tip is to get a relative or friend involved in project managing the process and ensuring dates are hit, so that you have a helpful adult involved in the process.

Kastner forewarns that after college applications are in may be the time when emotions related to launching set in.

Dealing with college rejections

If your child doesn’t get into their first-choice school, parents may have to keep their reactivity at bay and let the loss be about your child’s loss versus the parent’s.  The best response is to restrain offering your thoughts right off the bat and wait for their cues on when to engage.  If you try to slap a smiley face on everything it may sound minimizing. If you add your dismay and outrage onto their already upset feelings, teens will resent having to deal with your emotions and their own.  If you talk about how others didn’t get into their first choice and are happy, they may see that as irrelevant.  Some helpful things to ask may be “how are you helping yourself get through this?”  “what are you telling yourself that helps you feel encouraged?”  Rest assured that most seniors bounce back and settle into their new college choice.

Other College Resources

  • How not to lose site of the big picture during college admissions? JD Rothaman, Parent blogger and author of the “Neurotic Parent’s Guide to College Admissions” – See more at:
  • Robin Mamlet, former dean of admission at Stanford, Swarthmore, and Sarah Lawrence, and journalist and parent Christine VanDeVelde provide expert, comprehensive and compassionate guidance for every student and parent at each step of the college application process in their best-selling book “College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step”. – See more at:
  • How you can improve your chances of getting into college? Interview with Elizabeth Wisnner-Gross, the author of “What High Schools Don’t Tell you: 300+ Secretes to Make your Child Irresistible to Colleges by Senior year” – See more at:

What to expect right before college?

New ways of Relating

During these final years and beyond, the parenting style you have been using for years may need some tweaking by extending more trust, loosening authority, and negotiating more.  There are three different parental approaches:

  • Authoritative: Hold the line. Maintain control and authority.  These parents call it as they see it and are in charge of their child’s behavior until they leave home.
  • Permissiveness:  Call your own shots  – “You’re 18. It’s up to you. I trust you”.
  • Mix: The largest percentage that Kastner sees fall into this category. These parents aren’t comfortable with either releasing the tether or keeping it reeled in closely. Their approach largely depends on what they know about their kids.

All of the above really depends on a family’s philosophy, the situation at hand, how risky is the situation, and what the worst possible outcome is. If you have a mature senior who is responsible, on track, and careful, then you can use what Kastner calls a license-to-choose approach.  This approach involves a parent weighing in with their values, concerns, and thoughts before turning decision over to the child’s conscience.  It’s not quite outright permission or laissez-faire, it’s removing yourself from being in the control seat, and allowing your teen to make their decision regardless of what a parent may express.

Another approach would be the scaffolding approach.  Parents enable a child to function at the edge of his or her capabilities in order to build ever-evolving new competencies.  This approach works on the idea that learning occurs on the fringes of what you already know, so when parents hold the line on what is permissible and what is not, learning can evolve over a longer span of time. As the child grows in their ability to self-govern, parents can transfer more to the teen.

During this juncture, parents may consider having a relationship approach, where parents talk about their own feelings and needs relative to their child’s behavior.  This approach relies on a child’s need for less authority and on the child wanting to preserve the parent-child relationship.  When the relationship shifts in this way, parents can trust their child to be fair-minded, responsible, and considerate for their own sake versus doing it to comply with rules and avoid punishment.

Other Parenting Resources

  • Learn how to discipline and foster responsible decision making in your teenager.  Interview with psychologist John Rosemond, author of eleven best-selling parenting books, including his latest: “Teen Proofing”. – See more at:
  • The pioneering expert behind The Whole-Brain Child, Daniel J. Siegel, explores the ultimate child-raising challenge: discipline.  See more at:

Family Trips and Summer

Don’t be surprised if your teen opts to stay at home with friends versus going on a family vacation.  Your teen may want to spend their last days before college with their friends.  Parents, however, may be feeling like they are running out of time together and want more family time.  In order to create more distance, you may find your launcher creating a level of chaos that makes it hard to create a smooth send off, but just know that it’s your child trying to create a little more distance and selfhood to make the launch emotionally easier on them.

“Parent’s sentimental ideas about how to spend vacations can overshadow their senior’s own notions. Whose vacation is it anyway? Both! That’s the dilemma” p53

Laura Kastner offers the following astute observation about the summer departure and the opposing tensions:

“ On one hand, parents wonder why their child is ruining their last months at home by thoughtless antics.  Some parents can’t wait for their children to leave! How can parents handle this havoc and keep peace?  Adding fuel to the fire, our emerging adults minimize our parenting with dismissing message (Relax, I don’t need your lectures anymore”) p 90

“During the child’s final days at home, parents should resist possessiveness, refrain from guilt-tripping their child into something they don’t want to do, and avoid generating a drawn-out emotive display.  If a parent’s emotions are extremely strong, containing some of it can be a real kindness to the child. “ p 120

On a positive note, Kastner describes the developmental stage (age 16-17) during spring and summer year as rapprochement, which happens when your child develops their own separate identify and can more easily be close and deal with negative exchanges.

How parents and kids get senioritis?

Senioritis can start as early as junior year and extend through the summer after graduation. Kastner explains that it’s very typical during this time to get an academic slump, “blahs to everything,  and power surges similar to the “terrible twos.” Sadly, parents go through their own midlife issues, such as jobs, health, loss of youth, and perhaps dealing with their own aging parents.  In addition, they may start working compulsively to get their finishing touches in before the teen leaves the nest.  Siblings may start to worry about being alone with mom or dad. All of which create a perfect storm of emotions and potential conflict.

“At length, seniors in my launching groups tell me how much they want to call their own shots – and how entitled they feel to do so.  Bidding for more freedom to run their own lives, most capitalize on their good negotiating position as seniors. Implicitly, their attitude conveys, “I’m way more competent than you give me credit for, but I’m not about to tell you everything I’ve been through because you’d freak out if you knew—so just trust me” p 50

What are common worries parents and teens have during launching?

Parents’ common concerns

After her work with parents, Laura Kestner has identified the most common worries that parents have and suggests that we have heart-to-heart conversations with our college-bound children to help reassure ourselves that they are ready to tackle issues.  She reminds parents the importance of having a well-timed and respectful dialogue versus a lecture to discuss issues such as academics and grades, will their child make the most out of their educational opportunities offered, is he prepared, can he handle the academic pressure, does he have the self-structure to balance socializing and studying?  Here are some great conversations you can have with your kids about common areas of concern for parents:

  • Money: Can my child handle it responsibly? Are credit cards a good idea? What should I expect to over financially? Can she manage a job and school?
  • Sex: How ingrained are the values about sex that I hope I’ve transmitted to my child? Does he have the wherewithal to avoid unsafe sex and unwanted sex?
  • Substance use:  Can my child handle being around lots of drinking and marijuana use? Will drinking impair her judgment?
  • Physical danger and well-being.  Will my child be safe on campus? Will she be capable of recognizing a dangerous situation? Can she keep herself healthy?
  • Emotional Stability: Can my child handle the experience of college emotionally? Will he be happy? Will he be thrown big-time by something?
  • Friendship issues: Will my child be able to form healthy, supportive friendships? Will she fall into the wrong group? Will she feel left out?

Top issues for young people about to leave home

Laura shares common concerns that young teens have about leaving for college.  She offers that how quickly a Freshman adjusts depends on factors ranging from global issues such as their personality, personal strengths, and general resiliency, to specifics such as the college-student match, class selection, and who the roommate turns out to be.  Homesickness, which strikes almost all freshman, typically abates as students become more involved in rewarding academic, social, or athletic ability.  Negative experiences and individual vulnerability can aggravate homesickness, even into the sophomore year. You may want to check-in with your child to gauge their feelings on these common concerns among teens:

  • Will I be able to make it academically?
  • Will I be tempted to party too much?
  • Will I have a social life or will it just be more studying?
  • Will I be able to manage my stress level?
  • Did I pick the right college?
  • How am I going to set a limit on other people’s needs so that I can get my own work done?
  • Will I like my roommate?
  • Will I get so home sick that I need to come home?
  • I’ve been with the same people all my life.  How am I going to get used to all new people? How am I going to find friends?
  • How will I know whom to trust and whether someone’s putting on an act?
  • What if I change so much that I don’t like any of my old friends anymore?
  • Will I be able to find friends who will be there for me if I need help?
  • I’ve felt limited by how people pigeon-holed me in high school, I can start all over again and try being someone else, but who do I want to be?
  • What’s it going to be like for my parents when I’m gone?
  • Are my parents going to keep breathing down my neck about grades?
  • Are my parents going to call me all the time worrying about me?

How to handle the Dump phone call?

During  Freshman year, your child may do what Laura Kastner describes as a “dump phone call”, which are emotional outpourings and opportunities for you to reassure your child of their competence to handling their problems.  It’s typical that your child may make extreme statements, download and purge their emotions on you.  Here are some tips that Kastner offers for working with your young adult (p149)

  1. Realize there is no magic technique that will necessarily calm down an overwhelmed freshmen. The best approach is to listen patiently without judging.  For example, you could say “I wish I could help you. I feel so helpless this far away, but my only consolation is that you’ve come through it before and have it within yourself to handle it.  I know you don’t feel like that right now.”
  2. Keep your perspective on why your child is calling you and avoid reactivity. Kastner reminds us that our goal as a parent is to understand your freshman’s fragility and make a conscious choice not to overreact to what they’ve laid at your feet.  If possible, try to remain steady, calm, positive and reassuring and be a resource of security.
  3. Understand that your child is venting with you because they can’t express their feelings of being upset to anyone else.  During the onset of the year, freshman are still creating and forming impressions of other students and they feel that they have to keep their cool around others who may judge them.  Encourage your child to talk to friends who may be in the same boat.
  4. Keep in mind you are only seeing part of the picture.  What you are hearing is a distillation of the worst part of their experience.  Make sure to check back later after your child has caught up on his sleep.
  5. Make an effort to manage future phone calls so that your child doesn’t develop a habit of being only negative to you.  Parents want to avoid being the main outlet for relieving stress. Kastner suggests having shorter phone calls or to move to email if phone calls degenerate into complaints.  Kastner cautions parents from offering too much advice, and not reacting as it may aggravate a phone call’s negative flow.  If you want to offer some ideas, then wait until the storm has passed.
  6. Recognize your child’s needs for additional support or counseling.  If your Freshman won’t tell you anything good about his life- he hasn’t joined any clubs, made any friends, had great classes or success- and it’s sustained over many weeks and it’s all you tap into, then Kastner advises a visit to the college’s counseling service.

“Freshman who are securely attached to parents – who feel connected, respected, and accepted by their parents and feel they can talk to them about important issues- adjust to college more early than young people who are insecurely attached.  What do freshman say they want of their parents during this transition? … First of all, tell me you love me and believe in me; second, don’t stand in my way; and third, send money” p132

How to keep connected  with your college kid?