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Empty Nest Syndrome

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

People want their children to grow up and lead independent lives. However, the experience is often bittersweet or emotionally challenging. Parents tend to feel lonely, sad, and filled with grief when their children leave the nest, whether it’s to live on their own, start a college career, or pursue their own relationships.

This empty nest syndrome that many parents of adult children experience is not a clinical disorder or diagnosis. It is a transitional period in life that highlights loneliness and loss, but can also open the door to new possibilities. Women normally suffer more than men do, and feelings of sadness may be more pronounced among stay-at-home parents who now find themselves at a loss for what to do without a child at home who needs their care and attention.

Symptoms

Empty nesters may feel:

  • Sadness
  • Loss
  • Depression
  • Loneliness
  • Distress
  • Worry or anxiety over their child's well-being
  • A loss of purpose and meaning in life
  • Increased marital tensions

Professional help is recommended if the parent is crying excessively and for long periods. Special attention must be made if daily life and work are impeded.

What are some unexpected benefits of having an empty nest?

While empty nest parents miss their kids, they might also have a sense of relief and freedom as they begin reshaping their identity as individuals. Depending on the quality of the couple’s relationship, they may also enjoy increased intimacy and have more time to explore both shared and separate interests. For some empty nest parents, not living with their adult children can actually strengthen their bond and make the time they spend together even more meaningful.

What can parents do before their adult child leaves home?

Soliciting feedback from your child before they move out, kind of like an exit interview, can open up the lines of communication and set you off on the right foot to strengthening your relationship. Ask them about their feelings—the positive, the negative, and the mixed. Discuss what went well and what could have gone better as they were growing up. Try to understand any concerns they may have about family dynamics without judgment. Make a plan for how you will keep in touch and what would make both you and your child feel better about the new distance between you.

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Causes

It’s natural for children to leave the nest when they’ve reached a certain developmental stage, and empty nest syndrome is generally not as bad as parents may fear, as long as they have built a stable and healthy bond with their child. On the other hand, if the parent and child had a relationship of conflict, detachment, or hostility, both parent and child may suffer more after the child's departure from home. The best outcome includes a meaningful relationship and support between all individuals. A positive relationship gives all parties a better chance at healthy interaction, which is necessary for young adults moving toward independence, as well as for parents who are advancing in age.

Treatment

Treatment with a health care practitioner may be recommended if loneliness, depression, or sadness are in any way overwhelming the individual. Psychotherapy can be beneficial when managing the symptoms. A health professional may even recommend prescription medications.

For many, coping with an empty nest is mitigated by remaining in contact with the child. A parent can keep in touch with their child via weekly text, email, or phone calls. In times of stress and loneliness, reaching out for social support can also be helpful. In addition, diligent self-care—in the form of a healthy diet, plenty of sleep, exercise, and downtime—is recommended.

Instead of focusing attention on the child’s departure, some people cope with the transition through hobbies, travel, friendships, and career or education goals.

One’s identity may need to be reshaped from parent of a child to parent of an adult child; this adjustment takes time.

How can parents cope with an empty nest?

Some parents handle the adjustment easier than others and may even wonder why their nest is considered empty when they’re both still in it. But for those who are struggling, a few psychological tools that can help include having self-compassion and gratitude, prioritizing positivity, expressing their feelings (e.g., through journaling), and reaching out for support when they need it. Exercising, practicing mindfulness, and being kind to others are also healthy outlets during stressful times.

How can empty nest parents help their children adjust to the new normal?

When your adult child returns home to the nest, whether for a short visit or a longer stay, they may need help adapting to the changes you have made in their absence. You can assist in this transition by introducing your child to any physical changes at home, sharing what you can about your new normal, and then giving them time to settle in. It also helps to clarify any expectations you may have now that you didn’t have when your child was living at home. Find ways to spend quality time with your child, perhaps drawing on some family traditions or common interests. Additionally, keep up with your new routines and prioritize intimacy with your partner and bonding with the family.

References
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition National Institutes of Health
Last updated: 02/26/2019