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Empty Nest Syndrome: How to Cope When the Kids Leave Home
With all the trials and tribulations that come with raising children, many parents joke that they cannot wait for their kids to grow up and get out of the house. But when that time finally comes, some parents find themselves feeling sad, lonely, and even depressed. Here is how to prepare for and cope with your feelings when the kids fly the coop.
Living With an Empty Nest
When the older of Nancy's 2 daughters left for college, it was a relatively easy transition for Nancy, because her daughter attended a local college, just minutes away.
"I missed her, but it wasn't a very big lifestyle change," she says.
But when her younger daughter left a few years later to join the Air Force, Nancy's whole world seemed to turn upside down. "I fell apart," she says. "I was surprised by how hard it hit me."
Learning About the Symptoms
Specific circumstances vary from family to family and the feelings parents experience will also vary. Negative feelings may include:
- Uselessness, or no longer having a purpose in life
- Guilt—if the relationship with the child was strained
In some cases, parents may experience symptoms associated with clinical depression, including:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Fatigue or lack of drive
- Inability to seek or derive pleasure
- Changes in eating patterns
- Excessive worry or anxiety
People experiencing any of these symptoms should see their doctor.
Accepting the Grief
It is perfectly normal to feel a sense of loss when your children leave home. Grieving is part of the process that helps you cope and adjust. If you feel like you need a good cry, face up to it, do it, then put it behind you.
While it is okay to grieve and take time to do it, don't allow yourself to get stuck in it. The grieving process will help you move to the next step. If you are crying often, or you cannot overcome your feelings of sadness, you may be experiencing symptoms of depression. The good news is that depression is treatable, so tell your doctor about it.
During this transition, you may want to turn to others. Consider talking to friends who have been through the same thing, or bounce your feelings off your spouse. Chances are, they feel the loss too.
Having support is important. Support can also come from others outside family and friends. Support groups, online community bulletin boards and forums, or behavioral counseling may help shift your focus off your child and back onto yourself where it belongs.
Preparing While the Nest Is Still Full
One way to potentially lessen the blow when the kids leave is to prepare for it before it happens. When your children are in high school, their lives change as well. They want more independence, so it is a good time to back off a bit and let them find their own way. It is a perfect time for you to find your own way, too. Take the time to think about yourself and what you want to do.
Hobbies, interests, new work, volunteering, classes, or travel are a short list of new experiences waiting for you. If you have been putting projects off, the time to transition them into your lives is now. As your children break free, so will you. It will help you when the time comes for them to leave for college.
One positive aspect is that while they are in high school, you have the time to explore options at your own pace. If you aren't quite ready to go all-in on something new, you don't have to. You can take the time you need and do it on your own terms.
Shifting the Focus
Focusing on the positive aspects of an empty nest can also help you deal with your sadness. Instead of thinking about your children being gone, think about the new open road ahead of you. New found freedom has its upside.
Nancy has even enjoyed some benefits of an empty nest, including not hearing the phone ring all the time and not worrying what time her daughters will be home.
Perhaps most importantly, acknowledge you did your job, and did it well. Parents should remember that if their kids are ready and willing to move onward and upward, it's usually a reflection of good parenting.
American Psychological Association
Mental Health America
Canadian Mental Health Association
Canadian Psychological Association
An empty nest can promote freedom, improved relationships. American Psychological Association website. Available at: http://www.apa.org/monitor/apr03/pluses.aspx. Published April 2013. Accessed July 22, 2015.
Depression. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated July 20, 2015. Accessed July 22, 2015.
Empty-nest syndrome. Net Doctor website. Available at: http://www.netdoctor.co.uk/womenshealth/features/ens.htm. Updated September 30, 2010. Accessed July 22, 2015.
Goyer A. Empty nests filled with opportunities: how to deal with grief, free time and your new life without your child. AARP website. Available at: http://www.aarp.org/relationships/parenting/info-09-2010/goyer%5Fempty%5Fnest.html. Published September 2, 2010. Accessed July 22, 2015.
- Reviewer: Michael Woods, MD
- Review Date: 06/2015
- Update Date: 10/11/2013