Donna Korren, founder of Empty Quester, a blog for “empty nesters to embrace their kid-free life stage” shared with Blue-prynt her experience as an empty nester. Parents and kids often struggle with communication when they are living independent lives, but Korren breaks it down for everyone in this insightful and experiential article, making it easier to understand how to achieve effective communication no matter where you are in life.
When children leave home for college or beyond, the way they communicate with their parents completely changes, often leaving moms and dads feeling like forgotten favorite toys. No longer able to freely chat at the dinner table or give a quick hug when passing by their kids’ rooms, parents often feel left out of the loop. Kids feel frustrated having to “check in” now that they are living on their own. What to do? Communication about communication is key! It is far more likely that the issue itself isn’t about staying in touch; it’s fairly obvious that everyone wants to. It’s more likely about how often, by what means and what conversations divide or align empty nest parents and their newly flown offspring.
I made the below quick communication quiz for my family. The results were pretty interesting. In some areas we were totally in sync. But there were some important differences we could all benefit from understanding. Here’s what we learned:
1. How often do you want to speak?
Dad: Every Sunday on the phone with texts during the week to answer questions quickly.
Mom: Some form of communication once a day so I know you are alive.
Jacqueline (recent college grad): Every day or every other day unless I have a super hectic week.
Catherine (college sophomore): When I first came to college last year, calling my parents wasn’t a priority. I would wait 4 or 5 days and then feel it was a chore I had to do, to review my whole week on the phone. A friend of mine suggested I start calling them about the small things that happened in my day, once a day or every two days, so we could feel connected. That was the best advice I received. I never thought I would be someone who wanted to call their parents this much but I have begun to understand that parents will listen to any stupid story or thought you have and think it’s amazing; like the best thing they ever heard. Now I call my parents multiple times a day, so I guess I am bothering them. I think it comes with maturity, and having a mutual understanding on both sides that sometimes I just want to talk about nothing.
Parents, let your children figure out a rhythm that works best for them. They may be busy with school or work. Don’t put any pressure on the conversation. Allow it to be quick and light, or longer if they are up for it.
Kids: Parents just need to know you are okay. They probably aren’t looking for long conversations either, but they do want to feel connected.
2. What’s the best form of communication?
Dad: Phone—we are better able to have a productive and enjoyable exchange. And not during the workday when I can’t focus.
Mom: Facetime! I love to see your beautiful faces—it feels like a visit.
Jacqueline: Phone — I walk a lot and can fit it in while moving from place to place.
Catherine: Phone — I can call you between classes when I’m going from one place to another. But not when I get home and am trying to relax because that is precious time for me.
Parents: You might want a long conversation on a weekend or evening but that may be the least likely time they want to speak. Quick calls on the move suit them well.
Kids: Your parents love to hear your voice or see your face. Texts may be useful but feel impersonal. Moms and dads may be working and not easily available during the day so find a time that is mutually convenient.
3. When do you hang up and think “That was a great call”?
Dad: When they share an observation, accomplishment or realization that impresses me and I know they feel good about it.
Mom: When they sound like they are having a good time and balancing work and fun.
When they tell me a story that demonstrates they have learned some of the life lessons their dad and I have tried to impart—extending themselves to someone who could use a friend, learning for the sake of learning; paying attention to nature; seizing the moment.
When they follow up on something about myself that I shared with them. It feels good when they remember to ask about things that are important to me
Jacqueline: When you guys are funny and share your good news! Also when you give me amazing advice, if I ask for it.
Catherine: When I tell you a story I am excited about and you get 200 times more excited about it.
When I tell you something that annoys me or a challenge I am facing and you get it and know how to respond, without giving advice–that is comforting.
Parents: Kids love when you listen to their stories and only give them advice when they ask for it. Resist the urge to comment or give your opinion. Also, they do like to hear your stories so make sure your conversations are not just a one way monologue from your kids.
Kids: Parents really do want you to have fun. And we also like to hear that you are growing and reflecting and making connections to the larger world around you.
4. When do you find the communication annoying?
Dad: When I am at work and can’t properly focus.
Mom: Speaking to my kids when they are distracted. I would rather hang up and speak when they can be engaged. Also, having them say I am intrusive when all I have said is “how are you?”
Jacqueline: When you call me back multiple times or nag me; I want to talk about fun things and news.
Catherine: When a call turns into unwarranted parenting and I have things to do. We have many, many people giving us opinions and advice. Sometimes it is just helpful to vomit out my thoughts and not even have to talk much about them after. Just be a reflection board.
Parents: Kids are making it clear. They want and even need to talk to you but stand back; they are really trying to figure things out for themselves. Listen without judgement and don’t hound them with your well-intentioned advice. Less is more here.
Kids: Parents have been involved in your daily life up until now. Give them the benefit of the doubt that they aren’t trying to intrude. They have to get used to the new way of communicating with you. And find times to speak when both you and they can focus.
5. What would you like your kids/parents to better understand about your communication or lack of it?
Dad: Communication keeps relationships alive and vibrant. I prefer when we can have a phone conversation when we can concentrate on the other person without distractions. “Quality conversation over quantity.”
Mom: I really want you to have your space. You are living on your own, making new friends and having new experiences. I don’t expect to be a part of it all but it makes me sad if we are out of touch too long. I want to share your joy, while respecting your privacy. Just because we are out of sight, I don’t want to feel like I am out of mind so check in.
Jacqueline: I am working on being more present. When I don’t call, I’m literally not perceiving how much time has passed. I am not intentionally not calling home.
Catherine: Sometimes I don’t communicate certain feelings because they are frustrating enough to handle on my own; I don’t want to add another voice to them. Respect of time and space and boundaries needs to be developed between kids and their parents. Sometimes I just need time for myself and sometimes it’s just nice to hear your voice say “I love you” and to feel reinforced.
Parents: It’s not personal. Kids need to work through their own thoughts and sometimes they are just busy and distracted. Don’t make a big deal out of it. And always remind them that you love them.
Kids: A little quality communication with your parents will go a long way
As a seasoned empty nester, I have watched the communication with our girls ebb and flow, with all four of our family members having different needs and requests. Really understanding, and being considerate and compassionate towards one another’s feelings about staying in touch, can keep the flock chirping along.