Empty nest syndrome is a common occurrence, but everyone experiences different degrees of it. While virtually every person who has family members leave the home experiences sadness, for some, this feeling can develop into severe unhappiness. Handling this sometimes requires professional help. There are also preventative measures that those who anticipate an empty nest can take in order to reduce the likelihood of the departure of children developing into a severe depression.
Empty Nest Syndrome
Described as a period in which depression, sadness, and grief occur, many parents experience empty nest syndrome when their children leave for college. While the home was once a bustling center of activity, with phones ringing, the television blaring, and someone raiding the refrigerator every 20 minutes, the house is now disturbingly quiet. This sudden stillness can leave parents wanting the hustle and bustle back. This desire for the house not to be hollow leads to empty nesters developing negative feelings and deep sadness.
Causes of the Syndrome
While the most common cause for parents becoming empty nesters is that the kids have gone away to college, there are other causes:
- Children moving out at the age of 18
- Children leaving for a year abroad during high school
- Children choosing, or otherwise going to, a private, residential school
- Children of separated parents choosing to go live with the parent with whom they were not living
- Adult children who lived at home getting married, or otherwise moving out on their own
- The death of a child, which brings many additional psychological traumas with it, requires counseling in all instances.
Each of these situations brings a different set of complications with it that can play a role in how it is best to deal with this syndrome. Depending on the reasons for your empty nest and the severity of your symptoms, it's important to find ways to cope and get help in a timely manner.
Coping for Empty Nesters
If you or a loved one is experiencing difficulties with the empty nest, it's important to keep in mind that grieving and sadness are part of the adjustment process. That being said, it's important to work through your emotions.
- Visit your son or daughter's empty room, but do something while you are there. Write your child a letter or read your favorite book.
- Write in a journal: writing is an excellent way to process emotions. Write down what you think and feel, which can help you discover what's bringing you down.
- Talk with friends and family, whether they have empty nests or not, in order to process your feelings. Even if your friends don't know what to tell you, getting your feelings out in the open can help.
- Stay busy in order to avoid dwelling on sadness. Having a social calendar and time for hobbies will help you enjoy life, which keeps sadness from turning into depression.
Find additional tips on coping in the book Guide to the Empty Nest or on the website Empty Nest Support.
Some cases of depression require professional treatment, whether in the form of medication or therapy. If your sadness doesn't lessen with time, or if you feel sad and empty to the extent that you don't want to go to work or do things that normally you would enjoy, see your doctor. For some people, the feelings of your children being away after all those years at your side is too difficult to cope with independently. Seek help before your personal life or career start suffering.
Preventing Empty Nest
For parents anticipating the moment when their children will leave the family home, there are some things you can do to prepare yourselves:
- Help prepare your child for where she's going. Getting excited for her new experiences will help you focus on her new life and how happy or successful she may become in it. Organize family activity nights around planning and organizing your daughter's activities, finding a place to live, etc.
- Ramp up your own social calendar. You're going to have extra time on your hands; think about all the events you'd like to attend and things you'd like to do while your son is off enjoying college. Reconnecting with your partner is also extremely important in this stage.
- Take up a new hobby or rediscover an old one. Parenting takes a vast majority of parents' time away from work. Before your child leaves is the time to think about activities you'd like to pursue.
- Find a support group or friends who are in the same position as you are. Whether it's a local support group or an online community of empty nesters, knowing that others are in the same boat can be an immense help.
Time of Transition
While there are things you can do to help prevent empty nest syndrome from becoming severe, it's also important not to overdue it. Find new hobbies and reconnect with friends, but take the time to work through your feelings of sadness and to adjust to the new situation. Filling up your free time may help on the short term, but backfire once you realize that you've only hidden your feelings instead of processing them. When your children leave home it can be difficult to adjust, but working through your emotions slowly and calmly will help you come to terms with your new lifestyle as an empty nester.