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Being a parent sure has its ups and downs. From hearing their first words to waving goodbye on their first day as a senior in high school, having children is full of significant life events.
But there’s one big event in family life that many parents struggle with. And that’s when their children leave home.
Empty nest syndrome is the grief that many parents feel when their children move out of the home. While it isn’t a clinical diagnosis, it is a common phenomenon in which parents experience sadness and loneliness. They grieve the loss of a lifestyle and relationship that was part of their identity.
Let’s look at some symptoms of empty nest syndrome and how you can healthily deal with your children leaving the nest.
What is empty nest syndrome?
Empty nest syndrome is the sadness or emotional turmoil that parents grapple with in the wake of their children growing up and moving out of their family home. ‘Nest’ refers to the popular saying that children 'spread their wings’ when they grow up and move on.
We often hear the words ‘empty nest syndrome’ when the end of the high school or college season draws near. It stirs up some mixed feelings: anxiety, excitement, relief, and sadness.
On the one hand, you are proud to see your child go out into the world as an independent young adult. On the other hand, you can’t help but worry over their well-being while grieving the closeness that came with living under the same roof.
The good news is that you are not alone in your experience of empty nest syndrome.
What are the symptoms of empty nest syndrome?
Empty nest syndrome manifests in different ways for different people. Let’s look at some common symptoms.
Following the departure of your beloved child, you may feel overwhelmingly alone. It can be isolating to wake up one morning and remember that your children are no longer living at home with you.
Empty nest syndrome can be a rollercoaster ride. One minute you are crying at the sight of a family photograph, and the next, you are fantasizing about what to do with your newfound space and freedom. This might lead you to feel emotionally exhausted.
A loss of purpose
Being a parent, particularly a stay-at-home parent, is a full-time job. When you no longer see your kids daily, it can leave an enormous vacuum. This void, or sense of nothingness, may cause you to feel as if you are lacking in purpose.
Fear of a lack of control
When your child moves away, you can no longer keep tabs on them. This can feel like a great loss of control for many parents. You may feel tempted to check up on them every hour and want to know their every move.
Worry and anxiety
Hopefully, you trust your child and have faith in your ability to raise a capable individual. Nonetheless, you may feel like you are wading through a fast-flowing river of worry and anxiety. It’s normal for your imagination to run wild and catastrophize minor troubles.
For the most part, a parent will spend around 18 years looking after and living with their child. There is a deep sense of grief and sadness that comes with learning to love them from a distance.
How long does empty nest syndrome last?
Every parent will have a different experience of empty nest syndrome. It may only last a few weeks for some, while it may persist for years for others.
Typically, parents will experience the symptoms of empty nest syndrome for a few months. ‘A few months’ may be anything from two months to a whole year.
One survey found that it takes parents an average of three months to get used to an empty house.
However, empty nest syndrome can start as an anticipatory emotional response before your child has actually moved out.
It is completely okay if it takes you a bit longer to overcome these feelings. Everybody has their own timeline for processing loss and adapting to a change of life stage or change in lifestyle.
As much as possible, don’t time-pressure yourself into a state of false emotional well-being.
That being said, it’s important to realize that clinical depression may be misconstrued as empty nest syndrome. 5% of the global population struggles with depression. If your symptoms persist for a prolonged period of time, we highly advise that you seek professional guidance.
3 stages of empty nest syndrome
According to Carin Rubenstein’s widely renowned book, Beyond the Mommy Years, there are three stages of empty nest syndrome:
When your child first leaves home, you are likely to feel overcome by feelings of sadness and loss. You may be feeling teary-eyed and emotionally triggered by the simplest things.
After a few months have passed, you may find yourself relishing your newfound freedom.
Instead of the mental load from having to drive your kids everywhere and never-ending housekeeping, you now have time for self-care and hobbies. This newly liberated lifestyle is bound to inspire a sense of relief.
Once you have ridden the roller-coaster of sadness, reprieve, and freedom, you should reach the stage of joy. Hopefully, you have settled into your new self-determined rhythms. Perhaps you might be establishing new social networks or finally booking that couple’s getaway. Or maybe, even a solo vacation.
You can rest assured that with your conscious parenting, you have sent your child out into the world with all the necessary love, knowledge, and support.
Are some parents more susceptible than others?
No one can predict their experience of empty nest syndrome. However, it has been noted that a few types of parents are slightly more susceptible to experiencing the symptoms of empty nest syndrome.
Helicopter parents pay incredibly close attention to the behaviors and problems experienced by their child. They tend to intervene at the minor hint of struggle or trouble.
They ‘hover overhead,’ hence the name. Their instinct to protect and nurture may override the rational voice in their head that assures them their child needs space.
The more time you spend with your children, the more you feel responsible for meeting all their needs. You become each other’s full-time companion.
Parenting is, essentially, your job. Realizing that your role in their lives has to shift dramatically is challenging to accept.
As a single parent, you may feel solely responsible for your child’s well-being and happiness. When they leave, you cannot go through the emotional struggles with your child’s other parent. This can make the feelings of loneliness and confusion worse.
As 90% of single parents are women, it is more likely that a mother will experience heightened symptoms of empty nest syndrome.
Parents who rely on their parent roles for self-identity
Many parents, particularly full-time parents, get their sense of purpose and motivation from their roles as parents. Parenthood is integral to their sense of identity. When they cannot assume that role, it can trigger feelings of insecurity and self-doubt.
Parents with marital struggles
In some marriages, the only thing keeping the relationship going is the mutual love for their children. Often, parents want to protect their children from the pain of parental divorce.
Even in a less extreme instance, a struggling relationship may worsen feelings of depression and isolation. And the struggles within the relationship may become more apparent once the children leave the house.
How to deal with empty nest syndrome
As difficult as it is, there are ways for you to cope with empty nest syndrome. Here are some ideas:
1. Make social connections
Use your free time to reconnect with old friends. Understandably, parents may neglect their social relationships as they barely have time for themselves, let alone others.
2. Seek professional help
The symptoms of depression may be confused with the symptoms of empty nest syndrome, and if you suffer from the former, you can utilize safe and effective therapies.
3. Set goals for the future
Adopting a forward-looking mindset alleviates feelings of grief. It sparks motivation and promotes a healthy sense of perspective. Setting and achieving goals also encourages the development of your authentic identity.
4. Take up a new hobby or career
Exploring different facets of your identity and expanding your interests can be an incredibly fulfilling journey.
Try out a variety of new activities in your area, whether that’s a book club or yoga classes. A new physical activity is a wonderful way of broadening your social circle while maintaining your physical health.
5. Reconnect with your partner
An empty nest is a perfect opportunity to spend quality time with your significant other. Use this new space and time to reignite the romance in your relationship.
This is the ideal time to create a loving home environment and a mutually supportive, compassionate relationship. In fact, 63% of empty nesters report they became closer with their spouse after their children left home.
6. Practice self-care
Everyone has a preferred self-care ritual. Find what works for you.
7. Focus on the positives
You are allowed to feel sad about your child leaving home. That being said, their moving out is a normal and positive change. You should celebrate your child’s independence. Feel excited about all the opportunities that await them with learned optimism.
After all, you deserve a huge congratulations for getting them to this point!
8. Keep in touch with your children
Thankfully, we live in an age of technology that allows for effortless global communication. Your child may live one block away or on the other side of the planet. Either way, you can still stay in contact.
Physical distance does not equate to emotional distance. Stay in touch to show your child that you still love them unconditionally.
Empty nest syndrome is normal: you are not alone
While parents should encourage their children to blossom into young adults with their own independent life, sending children off into the world can be difficult.
If you are experiencing the emotions of empty nest syndrome, it’s important to remember that you are not alone in feeling a sense of loss.
Although it is common in many parents around the world, don’t feel pressured to compare your journey to others or to ‘snap yourself out of it.’
Invest in self-care and healthy relationships, and focus on the positive aspects of your child’s young independence.
If you need additional support, get in touch with BetterUp. One of our expert coaches will be happy to support you.