Facing Empty Nest Syndrome
How to cope so life feels full again.
Posted August 18, 2019
You raised your child to be independent, but still, it can feel like such a loss when your child moves out on their own. Empty nest syndrome is a very real feeling of grief and loss, including feelings of loneliness and a shifting of your sense of purpose. It most frequently happens when your children go off to college or start to live independently.
The feeling of loss you experience can be similar to the grief you feel when there is a death in the family. A loss is a loss, even if it is tied to positive reasons. You may feel anxiety, depression, anger, relief, and denial. You are learning a new way to interact with your child, your partner, and most importantly, yourself.
At first, you may enjoy the new quiet of your home, but you also feel a sense of loss. Your children who are you raised them to be – independent, happy adults – so you may be wondering why you are feeling a sense of grief. Your schedule has now changed, and your role as a parent has changed. It can be a big hurdle to adapt to your new role – or to even discover what exactly is that new role.
Also, if you and your partner have focused on your children and not so much on your relationship, when your child leaves, it is a time to get to know your partner again. This can cause feelings of awkwardness, and may also help you realize that you and your partner were focusing on the kids as a way to avoid some issues in your relationship. These issues are harder to avoid when it is just the two of you in the house!
You may feel like you and your partner have become strangers. To get to know each other as a couple again, talk about some activities or adventures that you may have put on hold while the kids were at home. Consider talking with a couples therapist to help transition into your new roles in your relationship.
Helping your children prepare to leave the nest can make you feel more comfortable that they are heading off to a successful and happy new life. You can prepare yourself by reading up on empty nest syndrome and talking with other parents who have experienced it. Begin getting involved in activities that you can pick up fully when your child moves out. This will help you with the transition – you have an activity that will be consistent throughout that time.
Keep in mind that even with preparing, you may still feel a sense of loss, and that is completely normal. If you are unable to help your child prepare, that is totally okay.
It's important to acknowledge that your role in your child’s life is changing. You will always be mom or dad, but your child may need you in a different way now. It is completely normal to feel that your purpose in your child’s life has completely changed. Your child still needs you, just in a different way.
You may find that you have more unscheduled or unstructured time on your hands – this is a time to discover activities and do things that you may not have had the time or energy to do before. You may be stretching more of your social muscles – which may feel uncomfortable or liberating.
Your child may also let you know if she needs more of your involvement in her new life or less involvement. Keep in mind that if your child wants less involvement, this is not personal – she is getting used to being more independent. She is who you raised her to be.
You may find that you and your partner or co-parent are coping differently with your child moving away. One half of a couple may find comfort in talking about their feelings, while the other half finds comfort in keeping busy with work or other activities. Sometimes this can lead to one partner saying to the other, “Why are you so emotional?” or “Why are you stuffing things down instead of talking about them?”
The truth is, we deal with loss in different ways. Add to this that relationships with children can be complicated. One parent may have had a closer emotional bond with a child, and the loss hits them harder, while the other parent may feel a sense of relief.
If you are a single parent, you may have a very strong bond with your child – and this can cause a deeper sense of loss when your child leaves the nest. You may also feel a sense of relief and pride that your child has become independent – and you may feel some guilt about feeling relief. It is totally normal to feel relieved that your child is now living on their own.
If you have raised your child as a couple, there may be conflicts over how each of you is processing or handling your child leaving home. You may also have a period of getting to know each other again. In some cases, when couples have more time to focus on their relationship, it becomes stronger – in some cases, they realize that their relationship has run its course and it is in their best interest to separate. Talking with a mental health professional can be very helpful in sorting out your feelings.
Anxiety is very common when you are experiencing empty nest syndrome. The root of empty nest syndrome is grief. You have experienced a loss, even if it is due to positive reasons, such as your child becoming independent. The feelings you will experience are very similar to when there is a death in the family. You may feel denial, anxiety, anger, and depression – sometimes all at once. Eventually, you adapt to your “new normal,” and discover activities and a new definition of your role that works for you.
Self-care is essential right now. Take time to take care of you. Explore new activities – things you may have put on hold while your kids were at home. Also, accept that a feeling of loss is normal when your kids leave home. There has been a change in your parental role. Your kids will always need you, just in a different way than they needed you before. Sometimes it just takes time to find your “new normal.” Have a structured schedule – schedule out every hour of your day, including scheduling in free time.
Talk to a mental health professional If you are feeling teary more days than not, if you feel you’ve lost your life’s purpose, if your sleep patterns change (too much sleep or too little), your eating patterns change (experiencing a sudden weight gain or weight loss), if you are withdrawing from people and activities you used to enjoy, or if you are having difficulty keeping up with your activities of daily living (like showering and brushing your teeth).
Call emergency services or your crisis center if you are having feelings of harming or killing yourself. Utilize the National Suicide Lifeline at suicidepreventionlifeline.org or suicidepreventionlifeline.org/help-yourself/en-espanol/ or call 1-800-273-8255.
Know that your children are becoming who you raised them to be – independent adults. The side effect of that is adjusting to them living away from you – in some cases, thousands of miles away. But you have accomplished one of the greatest feats of parenting – giving your children wings to fly.
For more information, check out this Good Housekeeping article I was interviewed for on empty nest syndrome.
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