If you’re trying to find a better way to deal with empty nest syndrome, you’ve come to the right place.
Empty Nest Syndrome refers to intense grief, sadness, and other complicated emotions that many parents and caregivers feel when their children move out of the house. It is a psychological condition rather than a clinical diagnosis. Contrary to popular belief, it does not affect just mothers. Research shows that fathers can also experience Empty Nest Syndrome.
Does Every Parent Experience Empty Nest Syndrome?
The time when your last child leaves home marks a critical transition period, but that doesn’t mean that you’re suffering from Empty Nest Syndrome. Though the prevalence of this condition is unknown, limited research suggests that it may be rare. For example, a 2009 study found that only 20% to 25% of parents surveyed in Vancouver, British Columbia experienced symptoms of an empty nest. (1)
Of course, that’s cold comfort for the moms and dads who do suffer from this condition.
When Your Adult Child Leaves Home
When your child moves out of your home, it can be a bittersweet experience. Yes, you want your child to be happy and successful in life, and you are proud of the responsible adult they have become. But you also worry about them.
After all, you remember what it felt like to give birth to the most amazing baby in the world and to bring your new bundle-of-joy home in a pink or blue little blanket. You experienced indescribable love, knowing you would do anything to protect your child –forever.
But now you have to let go and let them fly. So, it’s only natural that you’d experience conflicting emotions at this time. To make matters worse, many parents are experiencing other life-changing events simultaneously with their child is leaving home, i.e., menopause, retirement. So, having strong emotions doesn’t always mean you have Empty Nest Syndrome.
Do You Have Empty Nest Syndrome?
Here are 5 of the most common signs and symptoms of Empty Nest Syndrome.
Depression is characterized by persistent sadness, pessimism, worthlessness, or guilt. It can obstruct concentration, and if the depression is severe, it can significantly interfere with day-to-day mental and physical function.
Other signs you may be depressed include:
- Sleep disturbances, such as inability to fall asleep, sleeping too long, or waking up several times during the night
- Unexplained crying spells
- Withdrawing from friends or family
- Loss of interest in activities
- Changes in eating habits
Loss of Purpose
It’s natural to feel a loss of purpose after your grown children leave home. After all, you’ve gotten used to the hustle-and-bustle of driving your kids to their school activities, cooking dinner for them, helping them with their homework, comforting them when they’re distressed, and the hundreds of other things you do for them.
You’re more likely to feel a loss of purpose right after your children fly the nest, and this involves a certain amount of grief. The good news is that this phase typically doesn’t last long, especially if you’ve used this time to search for new hobbies and activities.
You can find a new purpose in life, one that can be just as fulfilling as being a parent. Indeed, you can emerge from this period with a new zest for life.
Suggestions for Finding a New Purpose in Life
- Volunteer for a local organization
- Pick up a new hobby
- Write your memoirs
- Go on a scenic road trip with your spouse, significant other, or a friend
- Start conversations with new people. These conversations can lead to a new career, a new hobby, or a new friend!
Extreme Emotional Distress
Becoming unusually emotional is a common sign of Empty Nest Syndrome. Losing a child to adulthood can feel a lot like being on an emotional roller coaster. Therefore, frequent crying spells, anger/rage, and irritability are quite common.
And you may not always realize these emotions are associated with your child leaving home. Instead, you may be concerned about your age, that there’s not enough time left to live. Or, you may worry that your marriage isn’t strong enough — or happy enough — to last through this next chapter of your life.
It’s important to know that emotional distress is a common reaction to suffering any loss. So don’t judge your emotions as good or bad, and don’t try to stop your tears or change your feelings. Instead, let your feelings flow naturally, whatever form they take, as this will help you heal.
Excessive Worry About Your Child’s Safety and Wellbeing
You will never stop worrying about your children, no matter how old they are. That’s a given. So, it’s perfectly natural to worry about how your child is doing in their new apartment or dorm room. But carrying deep unending anxiety about your child’s safety and wellbeing is not beneficial for you or them.
The only thing anxiety does is keep you from living your life. And if you constantly check up on your child, it will keep him from spreading his wings and becoming a responsible adult.
That’s not to say that you should shun your child, far from it. Instead, talk to your child about how often you should communicate and by what means. For example, you might schedule a phone call once a week on Sunday, depending on your child’s availability, or set up a lunch or dinner date once a week. This shows your child that you respect their space while still maintaining a solid relationship with them.
Increased Marital Tension
It’s also not unusual to experience increased marital tension after your last child leaves home. Unfortunately, it’s common for parents to neglect their relationship while tending to the children’s needs. Only after the kids move out of the house do parents realize that they do not know each other anymore. Or, increased marital tension might be caused by the couple’s reaction to the empty nest. For example, if one becomes significantly depressed, it can put a strain on the marriage. Similarly, if one is happy about this transition and the other is angry or sad, it can cause tension.
Either way, the solution is the same: Take this opportunity to redefine your purpose individually and as a couple after your last child moves away. Reconnect with your partner. Go out to romantic dinners, or go hiking or camping. Find hobbies that you can do with your partner. Ask your partner’s opinion on specific subjects and really listen to their reply. These things can build intimacy in your relationship.
Empty Nest Syndrome Risk Factors
Research suggests that certain traits or conditions can make you more likely to experience empty nest syndrome. Here are some questions you might want to ask yourself before your last child leaves home. (2) The more “yes” answers, the more likely you are to eventually suffer from this condition.
- Do you resist change?
- Are you happy with your marriage?
- Is your marriage emotionally unfulfilling or unstable?
- Did you have trouble weaning your infant off the breast?
- Was your child’s first day of school extremely upsetting or difficult for you?
- Were you a full-time parent without a job outside of the home?
- Do you consider your adult child to be irresponsible and thus incapable of taking on adult responsibilities?
- Have you always seen your child’s accomplishments as a reflection of your excellent parenting skills?
- Did you have a difficult time moving out of your parent’s home?
- Do you think of yourself as your children’s parent instead of having an identity separate from them?
Treatment for Empty Nest Syndrome
“The only way out is through” is not only a famous quote, but it’s also a template for life. It means the best way to get through a seemingly negative situation is to face the difficulty and discomfort head-on instead of avoiding it or distracting yourself with frivolous activities.
This is particularly true of Empty Nest Syndrome, as you cannot escape or shorten the process. Instead, you’ll need to take time to find a new purpose in your life. Let yourself cry and rage, yes, but keep moving forward to that unique identity that is waiting to emerge.
But you don’t have to do it alone. Talk to your spouse or significant other about your emotions, or share your feelings with a trusted friend. If you are severely depressed or anxious, seek treatment from a mental health professional or healthcare provider. And don’t hesitate to keep in touch with your child. Wanting to maintain a relationship with your grown children, whether they’re in college or the president of a major organization, is normal and healthy.
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