Empty Nest Syndrome

Empty nest syndrome is a feeling of loneliness or sadness that occurs among parents after children grow up and leave home.

Definition

Empty nest syndrome refers to feelings of depression, sadness, and, or grief experienced by parents and caregivers after children come of age and leave their childhood homes. This may occur when children go to college or get married. Women are more likely than men to be affected. Often, when children leave the home, mothers are going through other significant life events as well, such as menopause or caring for elderly parents. Men can also experience similar feelings of loss regarding the departure of their children.

Empty nest syndrome is not a clinical diagnosis, but rather describes a transition period in which many people experience feelings of loneliness or loss. While many parents encourage their children to become independent adults, the experience of sending children off into the world can be a painful one.

Symptoms

Feelings of sadness and loss are normal when a child leaves the home. A parent may miss the companionship or daily contact they had with a child, and may experience a sense of loneliness in their absence.

If you are experiencing empty nest syndrome, monitor your reactions and their duration. If you are feeling distressed because you worry your life has lost meaning, or if you are crying excessively and are so sad that you don't want to see friends or go to work, you should consider seeking professional help.

Causes

Recent research suggests that the quality of the parent-child relationship may have important consequences for both when the child leaves the household. Parents gain the greatest psychological benefit from the transition to an empty nest when they have developed and maintain good relations with their children. Extreme hostility, conflict, or detachment in parent-child relations may reduce inter-generational support when it is most needed by youth during early adulthood and by parents facing the challenges of old age.

At one time, it was commonly thought that women were particularly vulnerable to depression when their children left the home, experiencing a profound loss of purpose and identity. However, studies show no increase in depressive illness among women at this stage of life.

Treatments

When a child's departure unleashes overwhelming sadness, treatment is recommended. Discuss your feelings with your general practitioner as soon as possible. You may benefit from psychotherapy to better understand and manage your feelings, and medication may also help mitigate symptoms of depression than can arise during this period. 

Social support can be incredibly helpful during times of stress and loneliness, and self-care should be made a priority during difficult transitions. There are practical things you can do to prepare for or manage the transition of children leaving the home. For example, time and energy that you directed toward your child can now be spent on different areas of your life. This might be an opportune time to explore or return to hobbies, leisure activities, or career pursuits.

This also marks a time to adjust to your new role in your child's life as well as changes in your identity as a parent. Your relationship with your child may become more peer-like, and while you may have to give your child more privacy, you can have more privacy for yourself as well.

Many suggest preparing for an empty nest while your children are still living with you. Develop friendships, hobbies, career, and educational opportunities. Make plans with the family while everyone is still under the same roof, such as family vacations, long talks, and taking time off from work to make special memories. Also, make specific plans for the extra money, time, and space that will become available when children are no longer dependent on you and living at home.

References

  • Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition

Last reviewed 04/18/2017