Time to Redecorate the Empty Nest

Our college kids and young adults come in and out of our homes but we tend to leave their childhood bedrooms frozen in time, shrines to their younger selves. But once they depart for their own nests, isn’t it time to take a hard look at the space they vacated and redecorate it for our primary use? These photographs by Dona Schwartz of parents moping in their children’s abandoned bedrooms motivated me to get to work on our son’s room now that he has his first job and first apartment. (Yeah! and Yeah!)

Lyn Peterson

My friend and neighbor, Lyn Peterson, is the founder of Motif Designs, a Scarsdale, New York, design company.  She is also an author, mother of four, and grandmother to three. She has first-hand knowledge of these transitions in her own household and has helped hundreds of clients transform their homes as their children grew up and out. She offers her advice here:

G&F: How can we convert a “child’s” bedroom into one that reflects her collegiate status, rather than that of a little girl?

Color Scheme

Lyn: The good news, thankfully, is that I no longer see seismic shifts that early adolescence used to bring with turquoise/teal (the universal go-to color for ALL middle schoolers.) Inevitably black rears its head, sometimes followed by vintage then often back to sweet, seemingly out of nowhere. I was left scratching my head.

Perhaps because your child has invested in their dorm room, or more likely they’ve just matured, the design zeitgeist seems to have settled. Your changeover should be done in increments. Baby steps. In my case, and I suspect many of you are like me, as a mother with a strong urge to organize and clean, this might not be easy. I just wanted to purge!

Start with the obvious, get rid of the Hello Kitty pillowcases and invest in a new set of sheets, something urban chic. Or even just fresh pillow cases can refresh the bedding. Color block works well. For example, if her bed is teal add yellow or orange pillow cases for a fresh crisp look.


stuffed animals

The bar and bat mitzvah memorabilia has to go except if it was your child’s or if there is a particularly iconic photo. Next, the plastic trophies need to be removed.

Decide what is collectible, what they might want to revisit and what you might want to conserve for further grandchildren. (Seeing my 2-year-old granddaughter clutching my Rab (bunny) last weekend was a real moment.) It can be Beanie Babies, stuffed animals, Barbies, Matchbox cars, whatever…but not all genres. The miscellany has to go. The random doll or action hero has no place here.


If your child has frilly lampshades painted white and pink or sports lamps for boys, it is time to replace them. A cool new lamp will freshen up and modernize a child’s room.

Rugs and Furniture

If their childhood rug is stained (took me a while to figure out what those pink spots on the rug were – my indy girl’s pink hair) try layering a throw rug on top. A tribal, Dhurrie, Kilim is very grown up.

Kilim rug

When purchasing new things for their room, say a chair to replace the Giants bean bag chair, think apartment. What can and will they want to bring with them? And what will you want to give them? In any case it should all be apartment sized. No oversized, overstuffed for that third (but cheaper) bedroom made from a dining alcove with rent-a-wall (why didn’t I think of that?) They will not have room to change their minds let alone the furniture.


I keep memory boxes for each of my children, oversized plastic bins from The Container Store. Sadly, for me, I think they are mostly my memories, not their’s. Late adolescents and young adults are just so eager to move on. I am the one who clings.

G&F: When you walk into a kid’s bedroom, what screams “juvenile” the loudest?

Lyn: The treasure troves in their bookcases, on their bulletin boards and desk tops.

G&F: What are three quick and relatively inexpensive ways we can redecorate a college kids bedroom into space that works for parents who are part time-empty nesters? How can we welcome our college kids when they are home but also enjoy the extra bedroom the rest of the school year? 

Lyn: If you don’t have a queen size bed it is time to get one. Sooner or later a child will, hopefully, come home with a partner.

G&F: Can you give us some other examples of ways kids’ bedroooms have been redeployed for family use? eg. sitting rooms, office, nurseries for grandchildren?

Lyn: An extra bedroom became an upstairs TV room for me. An interior space, it is surrounded by other rooms and was dubbed the “Toaster oven.” I retreat there when drafts waft around the house.

Initially, my playroom was turned into a “present room” and my extra closet. I kept gift wrap, boxes, stationery….and wrapped presents at the Lego table. (Legos, btw, are sacrosanct.) Now this room is a nursery for visiting grandchildren.

With three grandchildren, I now have two nurseries, three cribs and two changing tables at home. All of my spaces are being eclipsed by grandchildren’s stuff. Strollers as front hall furniture, bouncy seats as table centerpiece, mini kitchens, toy boxes. It is deja vu all over again. The strollers have been relegated to the living room, the most underused room in the house. The rest I just tolerate. What’s a New Yorker with a toddler and an infant to do on weekends? You know the answer.

G&F: Did you redecorate your children’s bedrooms as they left for college and once they got their own apartments?

Lyn: When they are off into their new apartments, after you have sent them off with whatever furniture they can use/ you don’t want/ you think they must have, then it is time to deploy furnishings from one part of home to another. Shop at home and re-merchandise those rooms. That always makes me feel so thrifty and resourceful. The pay-off of the furniture repurposing is that money spent on new pieces is for the rooms I use, see, and enjoy. But as my daughter said: “I hate to ask you because I know you will stand up and give me the favorite chair you are sitting on…” and wouldn’t we all?

G&F: What are the biggest mistakes you have seen people make with their homes once their kids leave for college? and then, after they kids leave “for good?”

Lyn: Purging their rooms. College kids are home a lot and it still needs to feel like their home.

Guest room

Once they are gone for good I hate the look of those partially empty spaces. Somehow to me they feel like someone fled in the night. What is missing? It is time to refeather those rooms. Work with a theme. For instance, designate one room as the pine room, remember pine? This room is the paisley room a la Lord Lauren. Cluster like genres, like periods together.

Have your kids grown and flown? What did you do with their rooms and their stuff?



  1. Carpool Goddess says

    I can’t imagine ever getting to that stage. With one in college, and the other working and living back home (temporarily), I keep their bedrooms, as you say, like a “shrine.” Maybe making it a future nursery would be less painful than changing the room. #holdmyhand

    • says

      Seeing the photos of the parents in their kids’ bedrooms hit my like a lightening bolt as I realized our son’s room should now serve a different purpose…plus, he took a bund of his furniture so it looks like Lyn described in her interview “like someone fled in the night.”

  2. says

    Those parents moping and sour faced in the kid’s old room are so sad (in a pathetic kind of way). Am I cold? I guess I’ve moved so many times in my life, I don’t put a lot of sentimentality in four walls. I turned one old room into a lovely guest room, one into an office, and one into a quilting/sewing studio. Cold hearted indeed.

    • says

      Barb, I had the same reaction. It looked more like some terrible tragedy had befallen the family. Their kids grew up which should be a cause for celebration, not that we don’t mis them, of course! Guest rooms, office, sewing rooms are all space for love and work and energy – not surprised at your creativity! Thanks

  3. says

    As for me, as the household shrunk from four teens to one, I painted over a heavily graffitied wall, purged the junk, and moved in a new bed. It felt like a breath of fresh air! It now serves as a guest room.

    • says

      Bet it did feel like a breath of fresh air! Just ordered a bed yesterday for the new guest room in our home, too!

  4. says

    So timely as our daughter just graduated from college. However, we just built a new house so her room is brand new giving her a chance to set it up how she wants for the few short months she will move back home. Then it becomes a guest room. Her childhood stuff is already in one spot for her to go through. Sad, happy, bittersweet, nostalgic, exciting all at once.

  5. says

    My mother was one who took over my space right away. It was okay, because college was a big turning point in my life. I had moved on mentally in lots of ways — though I loved to come home. My poor college age son sleeps whereever he can when he comes home. With live in an old house with a shortage of rooms and his younger sister took over his space when he left. Loved your ideas though.

  6. says

    I redecorated my daughter’s room her first semester away at college – it was in desperate need of painting, etc. She was apprehensive about coming home to a new room, but was thrilled with the blue/gray and orange color scheme, the white Ikea furniture, and the pared down chachkis all over the place. Even now that she is an adult, I keep her bulletin board as she had it, as a token of recognition that it was once her room.

    That room is gorgeous, by the way!

    • says

      What you did sounds great, Sharon, and I bet she has loved visited her renovated space, feeling like it is still “her” bedroom but not in a creepy, frozen-time-time way. (Wish the room was ours, btw, just posted for illustration.)

  7. says

    All great advice! Our son has his own apartment and no longer needs a room here, but our daughter is still at college, so we’re keeping her room more or less intact. Queen bed and all, LOL! When she gets her own permanent place, though, all bets are off.

    • says

      We are in somewhat the same boat with our eldest son in his own post-college apt and our daughter about to begin college. Time for change in his room, at least! Thanks

  8. says

    After my daughter moved into her first apt. (her junior year of college), I had her room redecorated within six weeks. It was the first time it had been clean in years. I told her she was welcome back home anytime, but her stuff and her mess would have to stay away.

  9. says

    I have my oldest daughter that just “flew the coop” and the second (and last one) preparing for flight this summer. We’ve already started on my first daughter’s room. The second one we’ll start on in September. But your write up and interview with Lyn Peterson gave me some outstanding ideas! BTW I use to live in Bronxville, NY back in the day as well, LOL :) . Thank you for the great post, I really enjoyed it!

    • says

      Happy to see a former Westchester-ite! We have lived here in our two towns for decades. Glad Lyn’s suggestions gave you some good ideas.

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