The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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June 20, 2012

As kids leave home, many parents may need to grow up, too

Forget empty-nest syndrome: I had a rough enough time recently sending my 6-year-old off to his first sleepover at a friend's house.

He was clearly more ready for this milestone than his father and I were: He'd been begging to go for weeks, and that afternoon, he sat on our steps eagerly waiting to be picked up — sleeping bag, glow-in-the-dark PJs and s'mores fixings in hand — as I worked at holding back tears.

While it can be hard to watch your children head off for sleepovers, sleepaway camp or even Grandma and Grandpa's house for a few nights, such an event is a healthy and important step, says clinical psychologist Maureen Monaghan of Children's National Medical Center.

"I think it is a great idea to give kids an experience of being on their own in a structured, supportive, supervised environment," she says. The time away from parents provides an excellent opportunity for even young children to take initiative, exercise their autonomy and develop leadership, problem-solving and social skills, which often builds self-esteem, she explains. "Even just one night away from parents can be valuable. . . . It definitely challenges kids — it takes them out of their comfort environment — but it's usually really positive, and we see a lot of growth and maturing."

To learn more, I spoke with psychologist Michael Thompson, author of "Homesick and Happy: How Time Away From Parents Can Help a Child Grow," about letting your kids go away and the associated benefits for the whole family:

Q: Why is it so hard for today's parents to separate from their children, at any age?

A: This generation of parents has invested an enormous amount of time in being emotionally close with their children and having very deep attachments. They've also invested an enormous amount in protecting their children from trauma. We have doubled the amount of time spent with children in the last 20 years. When you're all in, it's hard to step out — it's just that simple.

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