Parenting Experts: When Graduation Means an Empty Nest

There are so many rites of passage in our children’s lives over the course of many years, from their clinging to our legs at preschool to their dressing up for prom. But what happens when their milestone rite of passage — graduating from high school — also marks a great change of life for parents?

“Graduating from high school and moving on to college is perhaps one of the most significant changes in a parent’s life,” says Laura Gauld, parenting expert and co-author with her husband Malcolm of The Biggest Job We’ll Ever Have book and parenting seminars.

“It’s the first time a child leaves home as a young adult,” Laura says. “And when it’s your youngest going out the door, it means an empty nest.”

After the tassel has been turned, the caps thrown in the air, and the initial shock begins to wear off, parents may begin to ask themselves – what is my role as a parent now?

“Parenting does not end,” Laura continues. “Your children will always need their parents. However, your role as a parent should be evolving from far less of a supervisor and micro-manager and more toward a mentor and sounding board.”

Amidst the excitement and newness of this transition, young adults will encounter challenges and adjustments, especially if this is their first time away from family. But perhaps the greatest challenge of all facing a college freshman is…FREEDOM.

The Gaulds reassure parents that the true test of having to balance the demands of rigorous academic coursework combined with myriad social opportunities and virtually no supervision is one that their children can pass with flying colors if parents have maintained a clear vision about what their parenting role needs to be throughout all stages of their children’s growth.

“If you’ve done your job as a parent, you’ve raised your kids to know the basics about good food and nutrition; productive work and study habits; simple skills in managing their money; and respect in relationships,” says Malcolm Gauld. “They will also have a healthy dose of self-esteem.”

“However, there will come a night, during that first semester, when you receive ‘the phone call’ — when the reality of being truly independent hits your child — and feelings of vulnerability and loneliness emerge,” Malcolm says. “It’s difficult, but that’s when your parenting needs to change.”

The Gaulds assert that at this time in a child’s life when parents have to test their own skills at being less of a manager and more of a supporter and mentor, there are some basic principles to help them stay on track:

1. Set high expectations and let go of the outcomes.

We need to aim high with our expectations of our children and resist lowering the bar when we sense that they are having difficulty accomplishing their goals. But the Gaulds say this means offering guidance and support when needed rather than stepping in to manipulate the outcome a parent wants.

“When your child is encountering difficulty in a course, don’t say, ‘Oh, that’s ok, honey, you can drop the class if it’s too hard.’ We need to let them know we are expecting them to do their best and try their hardest.” says Malcolm. “Then letting go of the outcome allows our children to take responsibility for their actions.”

2. Allow obstacles to become opportunities.

“We can get caught up in trying to ‘fix’ our children’s problems as we did when they were younger,” says Laura, “stepping in to negotiate disagreements with their teachers, friends and coaches. Now we need to step back instead, allow our kids to face their obstacles, and see for themselves the potential for positive learning opportunities.”

3. Value success and failure.

Today’s parents have a hard time letting their children fail. Success is important, but we know from experience that failure can teach powerful lifelong lessons leading to profound personal growth.

“When your child fails at something — be it a paper or a try-out for a team or show – ask what they learned from the experience,” says Laura. “Chances are they already know —whether it was that they were ill-prepared, over-anxious, not focused, or something else. Help them to appreciate the lesson without sinking into self-pity. This is how children learn about who they really are inside and what they need to do to overcome the obstacles that can prevent them from reaching their potential.”

4. Continue to inspire.

Regardless of what they might say or do, kids share a deep yearning to be inspired by their parents. Ironically, we will not inspire our children with our achievements. We best inspire them when we share our struggles, reach for our best, and model daily character.

“Don’t be afraid to share with your kids the struggles you experienced at this age,” says Malcolm. “Chances are, no matter how much the world has changed, they are experiencing something you can relate to from your own experience. So share how you felt when you went through these difficulties, and what you did about them, and what you could have done better.”

Now — what about you?

“Your own personal growth as parents will be your true legacy to your child,” says Laura. “Don’t neglect yourself. This is not a time for you to wallow in self-pity either.”

If your house is empty now, then perhaps so is your schedule. Fill it up with continuing education classes, tennis lessons, book clubs, that hobby you always wanted to try, and regular social and sports activities.

“Continue to invest in yourself, to learn, to test yourself, and to grow as a person and parent.”

For more information about Malcolm and Laura Gauld, the Hyde Schools and programs for teenagers, contact Rose Mulligan at (207) 837-9441, by email at and visit or