September marks the true test of a child’s march toward independence and a parent’s ability to let go. As shiny new students settle into dorm rooms and university life, parents can be left feeling sad, nervous, and protective simultaneously. Well, some parents…and surprisingly, men can be more affected by a child’s departure than women.

In the best of all worlds the move toward independence would have begun much earlier, but many parents continue to orchestrate and manipulate their children’s education and social lives into adulthood. Parents of only children are considered the worst offenders of both control and feelings of loss when their singletons leave the nest. Most parents, regardless of how many children they have, miss a child who has gone off to university, but the idea that depression sets in and a mother losses her sense of identity is not always the case.

In our digital age, the real risk is that parents remain in charge directing a student’s every move no matter where in the country he or she attends university. E-mail, Texting, FaceTime & Skype (to name but a few) allow immediate contact -truly a double edged sword. For university-age children, the journey toward independence is being short-circuited when parents continue to micromanage their lives. Older adults might recall being deposited at Uni with instructions to call home once a week followed by a quick reminder that “Dad’s birthday is around the corner.” Today it’s extraordinarily easy for parents to interfere. A quick text here, a short e-mail there.

We all know parents who hover and mastermind their offspring’s lives closely beginning with play dates, choices sports and other extracurricular activities. Making most arrangements and decisions for young children leads to total dependence on parents. Throughout university, daily and lengthy phone calls seek parental advice on solving every little problem with a roommate, a classmate or a tutor. Mum or Dad calls back for an outcome report or to rehash the still sticky issue.

In the end, when parents run interference for every single snag in their child’s life, mum and dad maintain control of their university student. Constant involvement is a very hard habit to break.

Empty Nest – a syndrome? Really??

When parents take charge of a child’s life from an early age, it is far more difficult to separate during the university years and beyond. The empty nest, initially manifested as a sense of loss for parents, can become excruciating for helicopter parents if and when a child decides to break loose. On the other hand, parents who have given their offspring independence early on feel a sense of pride and joy when their children begin the campus life or any away from home young adult experience.

What I’ve seen in my counselling practice can actually be quite the opposite of empty-nest syndrome. Women can feel closer to their grown children who have left home, they have better relationships when they don’t have to deal with the hassles of daily life living together. And women find time to renew their other relationships (including with their spouse) and personal activities.

However, Men are often less prepared for the emotional component of the transition. For many women empty nest is not such a terrible thing, but rather they view it as an opportunity to move on. Men on the other hand can often express regret for the things they didn’t do and opportunities they didn’t take to be with their children.

Seems it would be best for parents and children alike, if mothers and fathers begin the pull back sooner, when a child takes that first step into a nursery classroom perhaps?  Balanced involvement and guidance without designing and dictating on the parents’ part trains children to make their own decisions and learn from their own mistakes. By the time University rolls around, mothers, fathers, and children will be less dependent on each other and ready to progress independently with respect, encouragement, and space to go in their own directions.