Updated: 6 days ago
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As parents, we pour our love, time, and energy into raising our children. We watch them grow, take their first steps, and one day, they spread their wings and leave the nest. While this is an exciting and proud moment, it can also leave us parents feeling a sense of loss, sadness, loneliness and mourning over the end of a defining chapter of our lives.
Suddenly, the house that was once filled with laughter and chaos becomes quiet and empty. It's a time of massive transition, but it's also an opportunity for us to embrace and rediscover ourselves.
In this article, we'll explore the characteristics of empty nest syndrome, effects on our children and suggestions as to how we can find meaning and fulfillment in our newfound freedom.
What Exactly is Empty Nest Syndrome?
Empty nest syndrome refers to feelings of sadness, loss, and emptiness that most parents experience when a child leaves home for the first time. (These feelings commonly arise after any child leaves, however, is particularly acute after the last child departs the "nest".) At this time, the parental role we've played for so many years suddenly changes, and we may feel a profound sense of loss and uncertainty about our purpose moving forward.
It's important to state that the term "empty nest" isn't actually a clinical term or a psychological diagnosis. Rather, it's a common term used to conceptualize a normal period of adjustment and mourning related to a natural and very significant life transition.
In other words...a bit of empty nest syndrome is a sign that we're healthy humans who care deeply about our children. At its extremes though, empty nest syndrome can be severe and overwhelming, lasting a few weeks to a few months or longer.
Whereas the temporary experience of mild to moderate empty nest syndrome is perfectly normal and healthy, there are groups of parents who are particularly susceptible to more severe forms because their own identity may be more intertwined with that of their child. Those at highest risk include parents who are single, stay at home, over-involved and/or in unhappy marriages.
Also at high risk are parents who are dealing with other life transitions (menopause, loss of parent, career changes) at the same time and those who struggle to deal with change and life transitions in general (e.g., the parents who follow the kindergarten bus in tears).
Common Signs and Symptoms of Empty Nest Syndrome
The signs and symptoms of empty nest syndrome often mimic those of clinical depression and can vary widely in intensity from one person to the next.
Here are some common signs of empty nest syndrome:
Persistent feelings of sadness
Nearly all parents report increases in feelings of sadness for the first few weeks after becoming an empty nester. This is perfectly normal (actually a lack of sadness would be more indicative of a problem), however, if the sadness is particularly severe or if these symptoms persist for more than a few months, this is more of a concern and may require professional intervention.
Loss of purpose or Identity
Once their children become independent, many parent struggles with thoughts of "who am I now?" and "what am I supposed to do now?" At extremes, parents sometimes express that they think that their lives are "over" now that their role as a parent has transitioned to a new stage. These thoughts are most common in parents who were previously heavily involved in their children's everyday lives and whose self identity has been tightly bound to being a parent.
Anxiety and excessive worry
Many parents suffering with empty nest syndrome worry excessively about the safety of their children. Symptoms of this include checking in with them frequently through phone calls and texts and and tracking their location.
(It's difficult, but try not to do this. Remind yourself that each check in sends a message to your adult child that you do not believe that they are competent to handle things on their own. If they internalize this message, their development into a healthy young adult will be delayed and they'll move back into your basement.)
Frustration over lack of control
This is one of the hardest things for many parents of new, young adults. I've heard many parents say that parenting 18-22 year olds is actually harder (psychologically) than parenting teenagers.
It makes sense, for their entire lives, you've had a great deal of control over your child, but in a flash...that has all changed. Not only do you no longer have a say in what they're doing, you also won't know as many (or any) of the details.
(As hard as it is, resist the urge to push to become over involved. Remember that you have taught them what they need to know. Now it is time for you to show them that you have confidence in their ability to make decisions for themselves. Let them make mistakes. It can be difficult not to intervene, but it's important that your child learns that making mistakes is not only "ok", but is actually necessary for growth.)
Sleep and appetite changes
Many parents (including those who don't overtly feel particularly sad) struggle with changes in patterns of behavior such as new onset insomnia and increases or decreases in appetite. These symptoms are most likely temporary signs of normal grieving, so long as they do not persist beyond a few weeks and are not severe enough to cause impairments in daily functioning.
All the "feels"
Feelings of relief, excitement, guilt and regret are also very common and often cycling rapidly. Many parents also start to feel anxiety about aging around this time. This is a time of HUGE transition and all of these emotions are normal (again, unless they are particularly persistent or severe).
The Impact of Empty Nest Syndrome on Adult Children
Sometimes, as we get caught up in our own emotions, we forget about the other side of the coin. As much as being empty nesters affects us parents, it can also have a significant impact on our children as they embark upon their new lives.
Here are some common ways in which our adult children may be affected by our experience of empty nest syndrome:
Our children may feel guilty for leaving us alone and that they are causing us feelings of sadness and loss.
Feeling pressure to succeed
Many of us unintentionally put pressure on our children to succeed in order to fill the void in us that their absence has created.
Feeling worried about and responsible for their parents' happiness
Some children may feel very worried about a parent's psychological well being and may even feel a sense of responsibility for making sure we are happy and fulfilled in this new phase of life.
Feeling conflicted about independence
Adult children whose parents remain highly involved in their lives may struggle with feelings of lack of self efficacy, have conflicting emotions about their newfound independence and desire to maintain an overly close relationship with their parents.
Feeling overwhelmed by parental expectations
Parents experiencing empty nest syndrome sometimes have expectations for their children's lives that may not align with their goals and aspirations, causing tension and strain in the parent-child relationship.
5 Tips for Coping with Empty Nest Syndrome
Focusing back on us again now, there are many effective ways that we can cope with empty nest syndrome. Below I list my top 5 tips.
#1. Strengthen Your Relationships
Being that I'm a clinical psychologist who founded The Trybe Women's Social Club*, it's no surprise that my top tip involves strengthening interpersonal relationships. (I have previously shared the benefits of joining a social club in detail.)
Hands down, solid, healthy relationships are the #1 thing that will bring us all through this phase of life more quickly, painlessly and generally unscathed.
Connect with friends
Whether it's strengthening existing relationships or forming new ones, building connections can help alleviate feelings of loneliness and provide a sense of community.
Reconnect with your partner
It's so easy, as we get caught up in the busyness of raising children, to neglect our romantic/marital relationships.
Even though it has become cliche, it is true that raising children often creates emotional distance in romantic relationships such that once the kids are gone, too many of us look at our partners and think, "I don't know you anymore".
Luckily, with more free time and less distractions, the empty nest phase is the perfect opportunity to focus on each other and remember why we fell in love in the first place.
We need to make time for our partners! From scheduling date nights, to travel and finding new hobbies and activities to do together. It's important that we have fun! Laughter and playfulness are essential in any healthy relationship, so it's important that we these elements into our time spent with our partners.
This is also a great opportunity to take some of the energy we put into showing our kids love and find ways to show appreciation and love for our partner each day. Remember the little, romantic things we did when we were dating? Small gestures and acts of kindness can go a long way in keeping a relationship strong and happy.
As always, communication is key in any successful relationship, so it's important to make sure to keep an open and honest line of communication and make an effort to regularly share our thoughts, feelings, and concerns with each other.
Empty nesting is the perfect time for couples to think about what's next for their relationship. When working with couples, I encourage them to assess and discuss their individual personal core values as well as their core values for their relationship. Next, I advise them to discuss the dreams and aspirations they have for their lives together and how they can work toward them as a team.
Setting 1 year, 5 year and "someday" goals and having something to look forward to to do together goes a long way to reigniting a "spark" and strengthening a couple's bond. (This process mimics what happens naturally early in an exciting, new relationship as you get to know each other and make big plans for your future together.)
Redefine your relationships with your adult children
As parents, our responsibility has always been, and will always continue to be, to ensure that our children feel loved, valued, and confident. The "job" of the child is to grow into an adult. We need to give them the space they need to be able to do this. Don't be surprised or upset if your child doesn't want to talk to you as often or to give you as much detailed information as in the past. This is completely normal and a sign of healthy psychological development.
Open communication and understanding is, of course, very important. However, whereas we should all be open and honest about how we're feeling, we need to be careful about over communicating our negative feelings, keeping in mind that this should be an exciting time of life, full of possibilities and growth for our children (as well as us).
I love to say, "it's better to be valued than needed,". The goal at this stage of life is to begin to develop a different and more mature relationship with our grown children...One that respects their autonomy while still offering guidance when truly needed (and wanted).
#2. Rediscover your passions and interests
As a psychologist, the most common question I am asked by brand new empty nesters is, "What do I do with all this time?" Many parents often struggle to fill the void that their children have left behind and the busy, daily routines have ceased.
To help us find fun, purpose and fulfillment, this stage of life is the perfect time to pick up where we left off by exploring new career options (including starting our own businesses) and interesting new hobbies. (These are also great ways to connect with others who share similar interests.)
The next most common question I'm asked is something along the lines of "I've put off work and my own interests for so long, I don't even know where to begin".
My advice here is not to put too much stress on finding the "right" things to do. Rather, just start with something that sounds interesting and see where that leads.
Make a conscious effort to try new things and step out of your comfort zone. You may discover hidden talents or passions that you never knew existed. Any journey of self-discovery is always worth it.
(I'll dive deeper into all of these topics in future blog posts, so stay tuned.)
#3. Focus on self-reflection
Whereas it's always important, self-reflection about our lives, accomplishments and future goals is absolutely essential during the empty nest phase. This time of introspection can lead to a great deal of personal growth and self-discovery. (Be aware of and ready for automatic negative thoughts that might stand in your way.)
Reflection "looks" different for everyone. I love journaling, meditation and going for long walks. My husband prefers to do his "deep thinking" as he's out running trails or enjoying a coffee on our back patio listening to the birds. The method you choose is unimportant as long as it helps you feel grounded and helps you evaluate both what makes you happy and what changes you want to make in your life.
#4. Set new goals and aspirations
As you take time to reflect, be sure to also take the next step of actively setting new goals and creating a road map for this next phase of your life. You now have the time and freedom to direct your energy toward interesting new challenges. This time is a gift. Take advantage of it!
(New interests, and potentially grandkids, will come along soon enough to fill that time, so grab it while you have a chance!)
Perhaps you've always wanted to start a small business, return to school, travel (solo?) to new places, or devote more time to a cause you're passionate about. Be bold and ambitious in setting your goals. Focus not on filling the void left by your children, but about creating a life that's satisfying and meaningful to you.
As you begin to work on these new goals, be patient with yourself. The changes in your life won't happen overnight. Progress can often be gradual, and there may be times when you feel like you're not moving forward as quickly as you'd like.
Try not to be frustrated and never give up. Embrace the journey, and remember that every step you take, no matter how small, brings you one step closer to your goals. Celebrate your successes, learn from your setbacks, and focus on enjoying this unique period of self-exploration and personal growth.
#5 Seek support and guidance during this transitional period
If you find that your feelings of emptiness continue for longer than three months OR are impacting your ability to function in your daily life, it may be time to seek professional help. Even if you are not experiencing true clinical depression, a mental health professional can help you work through the emotional challenges of empty nest syndrome and provide you with tools and coping strategies to manage your symptoms. Therapists and coaches can also provide you with guidance on how to deal with the changes in your relationships with your children and partner.
Empty nest syndrome refers to a cluster of symptoms that most parents experience when a child moves from the family home and embarks upon independent life.
Empty nesting is a time of enormous transition that can be both challenging and liberating for both parents and children. It is an opportunity for parents to rediscover ourselves, pursue our own interests, set new goals and begin to develop more mature relationships with our adult children.
Empty nest syndrome is a healthy response to this life transition ("You are not alone"!), however, if your symptoms are particularly overwhelming or severe (affecting your life negatively), of if they persist beyond 3 months, consider finding a licensed mental health practitioner to help ease this transition.
In the words of psychologist, Dr. Carl Jung, "The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of the parents," so let's get to living!
About the Author
Angela Caveney, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist, Neuropsychologist and Founder of The Trybe. Her absolute favorite thing to do is to help women find their people and thrive throughout midlife. She can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
(*Note. If The Trybe Women's Social Club is not in your location, reach out to Angela Caveney to start a conversation about creating a club where you live. Even if you don't know a single person in your new city, don't worry! This is a great way to start to meet new people fast. We'll provide the framework to get you started.)