Empty Nest Syndrome
Empty nest syndrome refers to the distress and other complicated emotions that parents often experience when their children leave home.
Of course, people want their children to grow up and lead independent lives. However, the experience of letting go is often bittersweet or emotionally challenging. Parents may feel lonely, sad, and have some degree of grief when their children leave the nest, whether it’s to live on their own, start a college career, or pursue their own relationships. Women normally suffer more than men do, and feelings of sadness may be more pronounced among stay-at-home parents whose lives were organized around meeting the everyday needs of their children.
This empty nest syndrome that many parents of adult children experience is not a clinical disorder or diagnosis. It reflects the emotional ambivalence of a normal life transitional period. While people often focus on the negative emotional aspects, this time in someone's life can open the door to new possibilities. Without the numerous obligations of caring for and raising another human being, people can take the opportunity to redefine who they are, decide what they want for the rest of their life, rededicate energy to their own careers or areas of interest, and renew the marital relationship. Parents can also enjoy building a more mature bond with their adult children that can be deeply satisfying to everyone involved.
Empty nesters may feel:
- 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, and especially if daily life and work are impeded.
Empty nest syndrome signals an opportunity to reorganize post-parenting life around adult needs. While empty nest parents miss their kids, they may also have a sense of relief from the day-to-day responsibilities of child-raising. They typically have the freedom to update or renew their own 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.
Soliciting feedback from your child about family life before they move out, kind of like an exit interview, can open up the lines of communication and lay the foundation for the next stage of the parent-child relationship. Ask them about their feelings on the family dynamic—the positive, the negative, and the mixed. Discuss what went well as they were growing up and what could have gone better. Try to understand any concerns they may have about family dynamics without judgment. Make a plan for how you will keep in touch and how to manage the new distance between you.
It’s natural for children to leave the parental home 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, hostility, or resentment, both parent and child may experience emotional turmoil 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 good chance at healthy interaction, which is necessary for young adults moving toward independence, as well as for parents who are advancing in age.
Seeing a child grow up and move forward with their life is bound to bring up complicated emotions. Research suggests that empty nest syndrome has been largely overblown. In fact, parents often have a more difficult time when their children are entering middle school, leaving early childhood behind, than at other developmental periods, including sending a child off to college. But if a parent is struggling with the adjustment to an empty nest, they can ease their worries by prioritizing open communication, addressing any tension as soon as it arises, and finding that balance between supporting their child and letting them figure things out on their own.
Suddenly facing an empty nest can feel strange at first. What most parents notice immediately is the quiet. Internally, parents often feel adrift in the beginning, experiencing an overnight loss of identity similar to other major changes, such as divorce or retirement. People often feel less distress about the future once they understand that parenthood, which tends to be all-consuming in its immediacy, is just one piece of a lifetime identity. Such recognition helps mitigate empty nest syndrome by allowing adults to reconnect with parts of their identity that may have been neglected during the time they were raising children, such as their relationship with an intimate partner. They may also be invigorated by identifying new roles and interests for the next chapter in their life.
The mandate of empty nest syndrome is to update one's identity, to reshape it from one of parent of a child to parent of an adult child; it is an adjustment that can be expected to take time.
Therapy with a licensed health care practitioner may be wise if loneliness, depression, or sadness are overwhelming or impeding everyday life.
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, especially from parents in a similar situation. In addition, diligent self-care—in the form of a healthy diet, plenty of sleep, exercise, and downtime—is recommended.
Instead of focusing on the child’s departure, some people cope with the transition through shifting their attention to hobbies, travel, friendships, and career or education goals.
Some parents handle the adjustment more easily 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, thinking positive, 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.
When your adult child returns home to the nest, whether for a short visit or a longer stay, they may need help adapting to any changes you have made in their absence. It’s helpful to remember that they are experiencing their own transition, learning to manage their lives with new independence. It’s often comforting for them to think of home as a source of stability in life. 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.