Empty Nest Syndrome
There comes a time in most families when the last child leaves home, either for college or to set up on their own. This major shift in home life and responsibilities can leave parents with feelings similar to grief, commonly known as empty nest syndrome.
Children growing up and leaving their home is a normal stage in the cycle of life, and the symptoms of empty nest syndrome are usually short lived. However, if the parent is unable to adjust successfully to the changes, more serious mental health problems can develop.
This article takes a closer look at what empty nest syndrome is and its most common symptoms. We then provide some guidelines on what you can do to prevent, minimize or overcome the disruptive emotions.
What is Empty Nest Syndrome?
Empty nest syndrome is a term used to describe the normal and common feelings that parents might experience when the last child leaves the nest. An empty nest is a significant change because, for nearly two decades, parents’ roles have revolved around the needs and activities of their children.
Suddenly, there are no children are around, and the feelings can be similar to other life events, like the loss of a loved one. Same with mourning, empty nest syndrome is not classified as a psychiatric health condition — it is a normal reaction to a major disruption in daily life. However, if a parent is unable to adjust and move on over time, it can lead to more severe mental health issues.
How a parent experiences this phase of life depends on various factors, including their personality, resilience to change, the extent to which their life revolves around their children and what other roles they have aside from parenting.
Furthermore, the experience can be worse if other stressful life events occur at the same time, such as the death of a spouse, divorce, menopause, chronic illness or retirement.
Symptoms of Empty Nest Syndrome
The most common symptoms of empty nest syndrome are discussed below. However, keep in mind that these symptoms are not the same for everyone. There is no fixed and predictable pattern.
For most parents, the feelings start to diminish after about two months, while for others it can take up to two years to adjust to new roles. Some empty nesters don’t experience any of these symptoms at all.
Once the excitement of the child’s move out of the house wears off and reality sinks in, you can experience feelings of emptiness, sadness and loss.
Small reminders can trigger unexplained crying spells, or you may feel weepy for no particular reason. You might find it difficult to focus on normal activities, as your thoughts tend to turn to your children all the time.
Part of the grief can also be caused by the loss of purpose and meaning in life. This is especially true for full-time mothers who were tied up in their role as a parent. Losing this primary purpose can cause persistent feelings of emptiness, reduced energy levels and low motivation.
2. Restlessness and Irritability
Most of our daily activities are directed subconsciously in the form of fixed habits and routines. Suddenly, the old habitual behaviors are no longer required and normal routines are disrupted.
This causes disorientation and the feeling that something is not quite right, leading to restlessness, irritability and not knowing what to do with yourself.
We are social beings, and with children in the home there are always coming and going. Even when teenagers spend most of their time in their rooms, there is still someone else in the house. There are quick greetings and conversations around the dinner table.
So, it is obvious, even with both parents still living in the house, that there will be feelings of emptiness and loneliness.
4. Anxiety and Fear
The roots of fear and anxiety might often be at a subconscious level so that you are unaware of why you are feeling anxious.
There are a number of possible sources of anxiety. You might be worried about your ability to adjust to the changing circumstances and uncertain about the future. Fear of aging as you move to the new stage in your life can also surface.
Another possible source of anxiety might be concern over whether your children will be able to cope with their new adult responsibilities. You have less control over their lives and can no longer direct and advise them on a day-to-day basis. You might feel the urge to reach out to them all the time to reassure yourself that they are okay.
You might also feel left out of your child’s life and fear that your relationship with them has come to an end.
5. Marital Tensions
When the last child moves out of the home, parents are once again reliant on each other for companionship. If the marital relationship has been neglected during the years of parenting, cracks can show.
This can be aggravated by the fact that both parents might be struggling with their own emotions brought about by the empty nest.
6. Mental Health Issues
As mentioned, the symptoms of empty nest syndrome are a normal psychological reaction whenever there is a major transition in life. The feelings subside over time as parents adjust and adopt new roles.
However, if you are unable to manage the change effectively, it can eventually lead to more serious mental health problems, including depression, anxiety and substance use disorders.
Managing Empty Nest Syndrome
The following are a few pointers for preventing, managing and overcoming empty nest syndrome.
Acknowledge Your Feelings
Accept that the emotions you feel after your last child leaves the home are normal even if you are surprised that you don’t feel the anticipated sense of relief and freedom.
Avoid suppressing the difficult emotions. Acknowledge them, investigate them with curiosity and ask yourself what you can do about them. Try journaling about your feelings and talking to friends who have gone or are going through the same process.
Keep in Contact With Your Children
With technology available today, it is easy to keep in regular contact through text messages, email and video calls.
However, don’t contact them too much and expect them to involve you in every part of their lives. Accept that your children now need to find their own way, and possibly even learn from their mistakes.
Your children will always need you, but your parenting role has changed. Instead of directing their lives, you now need to be available to provide support and advice when they ask for it.
Find New Habits and Routines
Now that you have more freedom, change your habits and daily routines to fit in with your new lifestyle. You might want to start exercising every day, even if it is just walking. This is also an excellent way to ward off depression.
Take on New Roles in Life
Ideally, you should plan and prepare for your changed circumstances before your child leaves. Focus on your own needs and interests instead of those of your children.
Pick up on activities you used to enjoy and may have neglected or follow up on things you always wanted to do but never had the time for. You can go back to work, study, start a new sport or hobby or volunteer.
Rekindle Your Marital Relationship
Spend more time with each other and reignite the spark of love that brought you together in the first place.
Make time to sit and talk about your day, plans and goals. Enjoy date nights, outings, time with friends and even some exciting travel without the kids in tow.
Get Professional Help If Needed
Should the symptoms of empty nest syndrome persist and get worse, you might have a more serious mental health problem. Seek professional help if you need it.
This is especially true if you are showing the classical signs of depression, like being unable to function normally both at home and at work, sleep disorders and feelings of worthlessness.
Empty nest syndrome is a normal psychological reaction to a life-changing event. It is characterized by feelings of loss, sadness, emptiness, restlessness and anxiety, which fade over time. When a parent is unable to adapt effectively to the change, it may lead to more severe mental health problems.
The good news, however, is that recent evidence confirms that the empty nest can also be a time of growth and improved quality of life for parents. Many parents feel relief and excitement about this new stage in their lives.
Whereas women were more likely to be affected by empty nest syndrome in the past, recent studies have shown many plan and prepare for this next stage in life and look forward to the greater freedom. Furthermore, many couples have reported that their relationship and quality of life have improved since their children are no longer the main focus.