If your child is just off to college and you've been dreaming of all the ways you could use that suddenly lifeless bedroom, you may want to put down the paintbrush and hold off for a bit on plans for a major room transformation.
It's an emotional time all around, and experts advise against any sudden movements, tempting as they may be.
"It's the mixed emotions of, 'Wow, look at this potential space I'm gaining that I could do something with,' mixed with, 'Oh, my kid is leaving home and they won't be under my roof each and every night,'" said Amy Panos, home editor for Better Homes and Gardens magazine.
With many families pinched for space, an uninhabited bedroom could become a place for work, exercise, relaxation or guests, or maybe a bigger room for a long-envious little sibling.
The best plan, though, is to leave that bedroom alone for at least the first year, Panos says. That way, students can return home to find the warm and loving environment of their room still standing, and they won't feel like they've been forgotten or displaced while they were away adjusting to their new life.
"It's important for the child to know they still and always will have a comfortable place to land back at home," Panos said. "They're still very much part of the family even though they're not living in the home full time."
A teenager's childhood bedroom is meaningful, a private spot away from parents and siblings where they can shed a tear and be alone with their thoughts, said Vivian Seltzer, who was a professor of human development and behavior at the University of Pennsylvania for more than 35 years and is now a psychologist in private practice working with adolescents.
"It's like a beloved sweater they feel comfortable in, good in, secret in," Seltzer said.
She recommends leaving a child's bedroom intact for as long as possible during the college years.
Of course, it's not always possible to leave the room untouched, especially in larger families. But any possible change or new use should be discussed with the child, after the parents make sure they agree with each other, Seltzer said.
"That's very important because a lot of times they don't," she said. "One of them has had an eye on that room and hasn't mentioned it to the other."
Talk with your child about any plans for the room several months before it's time to go, she recommended. "Get this topic into the discussion well ahead of time, so that it isn't on the verge of the child leaving for college, which is a very emotional period," Seltzer said. You don't want them to come home for Christmas break and be shocked, "saying their whole room has changed; it's been taken away from them."
It can be easy to keep the room largely the same and still use it when your child is away. If you need to sit at the desk, store your child's possessions somewhere safe and private. You can tell your son or daughter that guests may stay in the room, but it will be ready for them on school breaks.
"Enjoy the space and use the space in a smart way," Panos said. "When the kid comes home, it's their space, but the three weekends out of the month they're not home, you can still use it while still preserving a soft, comfy place for them when they come home. I do not believe you need to keep the room a shrine to your child."
Give the room a decluttering and a deep cleaning, but make sure you don't throw away objects special to your child.
After the first year, you'll have learned how often your child comes home, for how long and with how much stuff. "Once you have a better understanding of that, you can plan out some changes that make sense for your needs and for how your kid feels about the room," Panos said.
Then maybe you'll replace the queen-size bed with a twin bed or a daybed to free up more space, Panos said. You might repaint in a neutral color or buy nicer linens for guests. Continue talking with your child about change.
Remember, even kids who may seem too cool for school about their room probably really do care about it, tattered posters, rug stains and all. It's a place filled with memories, one that bears a personal and sentimental stamp years in the making.
"Don't underestimate the importance of that space for a growing child, even if it's a kid who acts like it's no big deal," Panos said. "It is a big deal."