- As children go off to college, many parents experience emotions such as grief, emptiness, and worry.
- For some parents, the newfound freedom can be a welcome change, full of new opportunities.
- Parents can focus on rekindling their relationship and addressing issues they previously didn't have time for.
As children go off to college and start their own lives, many parents face a transitional challenge. They may experience a range of emotions, such as grief, emptiness, and worry, saying things like these:
- “Ever since my children left home, I find myself just sitting and wishing they would come back.”
- “I miss having my children around the house, and sometimes it feels like there’s nothing to do now that they’re not here.”
- “I worry about my children constantly, and it’s hard to let go and trust they can take care of themselves.”
These thoughts, when poorly managed, can result in serious mental health conditions. In fact, studies have shown that a significant percentage of adults experiencing an empty nest report symptoms of anxiety and depression. For instance, in a study published in the journal Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 30 percent of older, empty-nest participants reported experiencing anxiety. Another study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that 39 percent of empty-nest adults had symptoms of depression.
However, not all parents find an empty nest emotionally paralyzing. For some, the newfound freedom can be a welcome change, full of new opportunities.
If you’re a parent who is facing or about to face this change, here are two things you may need to consider to help cushion the impact.
1. Is your identity infused with your child’s?
Often, it is the best, most-involved parents that have the hardest time accepting that their child is leaving the nest. Part of this has to do with societal standards and the role parents, especially mothers, are expected to play in their children’s life.
Researcher Feryl Badiani of the London School of Economics and Political Science explains this sentiment:
Women who are socialized to fulfill the quintessential role of a woman—to primarily cater to her reproductive roles of nurturing a child—tend to be over-involved in the lives of her children. Hence, when the children leave, these mothers face an identity crisis, wherein they have to identify new roles to fulfill.
Years of assisting in school work, play dates, extracurricular activities, drop-offs, pick-ups, and sleepovers may leave you feeling like your children are the center of your world—especially if you are a single parent. The sudden free space created when your child leaves the nest can leave you feeling bewildered, like your life has lost its purpose.
Here are some things that may help fend off feelings of emptiness:
- Indulging in self-care: Your nerves are undoubtedly frayed from years of child-rearing. It’s OK to catch up on some much-needed me time. Start by getting some good sleep. Many parents don’t appreciate how exhausted they are after years of 24/7 caregiving. Treat yourself to some of life’s fancy perks: a new skincare routine, foot massages, and salon appointments.
- Discovering your passion: Utilize your free time to explore a new pastime or an old hobby that you had to put on hold.
- Getting active: Physical activity is one of the most effective ways to protect yourself against mental health issues. Go and enjoy that extended yoga class followed by a steam. Take a long walk and appreciate the fact that you don’t have to worry about getting back soon.
- Thinking about employment: Dealing with an empty nest can be particularly challenging for stay-at-home parents. Working to develop an identity outside of your maternal/paternal role—whether that’s through a new job or a volunteering opportunity—can add meaning to your life, improve your self-esteem, and keep anxiety and rumination at bay.
2. Has your primary relationship taken a back seat?
Socializing outside of your family can become less and less of a priority as a parent. You may even view your spouse as less of a romantic partner and more of a teammate. This is why you might feel uncertain about how to spend quality time with your partner without the buffer of your child when they finally decide to move out.
A study published in the Journal of Adult Development suggests that life satisfaction can decline for married couples at the empty-nest stage. With children no longer the center of attention, conflicts and arguments may arise, and it can be tempting to attribute them solely to the empty nest rather than examining the relationship itself.
Now that your immediate parenting responsibilities are no longer needed, you can focus on rekindling your relationship and addressing relationship issues you previously did not have time for. You can also use this newfound time to reconnect with close family and friends you may have drifted away from.
If you still feel like your relationship is not able to withstand the weight of empty nest syndrome, it might be time to reach out for help. Seeking support from a mental health professional can provide a safe space to explore your concerns and work toward healing.
Raising and taking care of a child can cause familial relationships, friendships, marriage, and even personal well-being to take a backseat. Although the empty-nest phase can be difficult as parents experience the pain of letting go, it can also offer an opportunity to reconnect with yourself and gain newfound strength for new and exciting chapters of your life.