Overcoming Empty Nest Syndrome: What It Is and How to Cope

Updated November 2, 2021
Mother helping daughter pack for college

Child-rearing is a nonstop responsibility that is at the forefront of a parent's life until their last child leaves the home. Being faced with an empty nest may result in feelings of anxiety and lack of control as the familial structure begins to shift. Learning how to process these new emotions and your evolving role as a parent is vital. When parents recognize that their feelings are a response to this life change, they can work through their negative emotions and towards a productive and healthy new chapter in life.

The Definition of Empty Nest Syndrome

Per Mayoclinic.org, empty nest syndrome is a phenomenon where parents experience profound sadness and loss when their child leaves the home. While not a clinical diagnosis, the syndrome can have profound effects on the people experiencing related symptoms of the phenomenon.

Parents who are suddenly enveloped by this new and foreign empty nest of theirs often experience feelings of sadness, loss, anxiety, depression, and even guilt.

Common Signs and Symptoms of Empty Nest Syndrome

You can't overcome something you don't know is there. After your children leave home, take your emotional temperature. Have you been more despondent than usual? Are you flooded with constant worry over your child's new phase of life? Do things that once brought you joy no longer interest you? If so, you might be struggling with empty nest syndrome. These are some of the common signs and symptoms that a person struggling with empty nest syndrome experiences.

A Loss of Purpose

Since your baby was born, your purpose in life was to care for them, raise them, and focus on them. For eighteen years, your days were packed with kid-centric activities. After children leave home, those daily tasks that once filled your life with great purpose vanish into thin air. Parents sometimes feel that they no longer have a purpose, and it can be difficult for them to recenter, discover renewed purpose, and recognize they are an entity outside of their offspring.

Mom hugging son at the living room

Increased and Excessive Worry

You might not even remember a time where you didn't worry about your child. You fretted when they spiked a middle-of-the-night fever. You sat on pins and needles waiting to hear if they made a basketball team, and you probably didn't sleep a wink during the teenage years as they were out and about, hanging with their friends. Worry is a parent's right-hand man, but it can take many parents by surprise to learn that worry can increase tenfold when the kids move out.

You'd think it would be the opposite. The kids leave, and you are finally freed from the chains of constant worry. After all, they are adults now, and perfectly capable of living on their own, just as you intended. Those who experience empty nest syndrome can feel shocked to notice their worry has actually increased now that they no longer have eyes on their kids every day. They spend excessive time wondering what their children are doing, and whether they are safe and happy.

Marital Woes

Without kids being the center of a couple's universe and their main shared focus, it can be challenging to find new topics to discuss, new adventures to go on, and new ways to reconnect as partners who are invested in each other, not simply invested in the family. Solid marriages can grow, evolve, and weather changes to the family dynamic. Unions that were rocky prior to children leaving home may have an increasingly higher risk for divorce.

The rate of empty nest divorce has doubled since 1990. Gray divorce, or divorcing after the age of fifty, is attributed to several factors. Varying experiences pertaining to an empty nest can be behind the split. Oftentimes, partners feel differently about their children leaving home, causing a rift between them. Couples also realize with the kids gone, they no longer know how to connect or relate to one another independent of their children. Furthermore, constant worry over the children's well-being can cast a cloud on the relationship, making moving forward too difficult.

Disappointed woman with man using tablet background

Emotional Outbursts

Excessive emotional distress and outbursts can be a sign of empty nest syndrome. Everything makes you cry or feel frustrated and sometimes even angry. Emotionally, you are now all over the place, experiencing outbursts that you haven't felt since the postpartum days.

It is hard to pinpoint the root of your emotions, and sometimes the emotions you are overwhelmed by are mixed in with other feelings regarding the aging process. You might be emotional because you miss your child or feel as if you didn't do enough when you had them under your roof. You may feel emotional because their departure reminds you that you are getting older, or it forces you to face the fact that maybe life didn't pan out according to plan. Recognize the emotional distress for what it is, and resolve to work through it.

Loss of Sense of Control

When the kids were living with you, you controlled so many aspects of their lives. It was your house and your rules for decades. Once they are on their own, that sense of control goes right out the window. You can no longer have a hand or a say in their meals, dress, friends, and so many other life choices that they will go forth to make. For parents who held tight to control in the home, this change can be jarring and overwhelming.

Can You Have a Predisposition to Empty Nest Syndrome?

The short answer is, perhaps. It does appear that many people who experience empty nest syndrome share some common triggers and factors.

  • They tend to view change as stressful as opposed to challenging, exciting, and refreshing.
  • They had previous personal difficulties moving out of their childhood home.
  • They have an unstable or unfulfilling union with their partner.
  • They have difficulties with other major transitions in their children's lives (weaning, starting primary school, driving).
  • They have a low sense of self-worth.
  • Those who were full-time caregivers are at a higher risk for developing empty nest syndrome.

It is also important to note that the stage in life where people typically experience empty nest syndrome coincides with other major life transitions. They could also be facing retirement, menopause, and health conditions that sometimes accompany the aging process. The ability to critically think through your feelings and determine where they stem from will be vital in overcoming negative emotions and thoughts related to empty nest syndrome.

It is also key to stress that feelings related to empty nest syndrome are fairly common. In a study of 1,860 empty nesters, 66% of the participants admitted to experiencing some level of empty nest syndrome. So, while you suddenly feel more psychically alone than you ever felt before in your life, you are not alone in your feelings related to empty nest syndrome.

Overcoming Empty Nest Syndrome

You have recognized that you are indeed suffering from some degree of empty nest syndrome, but what now? You can't live in this space forever; that isn't healthy. You need to take steps towards moving on and overcoming your feelings, because there really is light at the end of this tunnel.

Plan for the Upcoming Transition

You know it is coming, so plan accordingly. Make small and large changes in your life leading up to the big moving day, so when you are suddenly alone in the home, the transition isn't a massive shock to your system. In the year prior to your last child moving away, try to:

  • Find your own interests and passions separate from your children. Explore your budding freedom as they explore their own.
  • Involve yourself with activities and interests unrelated to your child. Try volunteering in the community, or take a class or course on something just for you.
  • Practice releasing controlling tendencies and remove your opinion from aspects of your child's life that they will soon have total control over. Stop trolling their social media channels, dial back the multiple phone calls and text messages per day, and show them you trust them.
  • Structure your day around yourself and your needs rather than your child's needs.
  • Make an adulting checklist of things you still need to teach your child, and work on those items during the last year your child lives at home.
  • Make an Empty Nest Bucket List. Include ideas you never had a chance to explore when the kids lived at home. Ideas can be major, like traveling to Europe, or simple but fulfilling, like taking a midday nap or reading a book during the afternoon.
  • Find support as you come closer to the kids leaving the nest, whether that be through your spouse, friends, or a professional.

Understand Your Parental Work Isn't Finished

Simply put: just because the kids have moved out doesn't mean they have moved on. Parenthood is a lifelong role, and it just looks different as your kids grow older. Know that the kids will still need you in totally new ways than they have ever needed you before. Accept that the role of parent is not dissolving, only shifting and evolving. With the kids leaving the nest, your role might now look like:

  • Acting as a sounding board rather than the primary problem solver in their life
  • Learning to listen to your nearly adult children with intent.
  • Dialing back the unsolicited advice
  • Supporting their goals and dreams (as long as they are healthy ones)
  • Being there when they need you, but don't be at their beck and call
  • Refraining from judgment regarding their life choices

Practice Self Care

Sadness over the kids leaving can lead to crying. While this life transition might warrant tears, crying might be problematic if it interferes with your daily life. When dealing with your emotions and symptoms of empty nest syndrome, be sure to utilize psychological tools to help you care for yourself.

  • Recognize the feelings and emotions for what they are.
  • Practice relaxation techniques when you are struggling to calm down.
  • Consider journaling your feelings.
  • Practice self-care by gently exercising, getting fresh air, and eating and sleeping sufficiently.
  • Use positive self speech, reminding yourself you are a good parent, the kids are fine, and it is okay to sometimes feel sad and miss them.
  • Reach out to a trusted partner, friend, or professional if it feels like too much to handle the sadness alone.

Rediscover Your Partner

This is the phase in life where you and your partner get a second lease on romance. Date your partner, learn all about them again and remember to be each other's support system during this transition. If it feels a bit strange or awkward to suddenly shift focus to your marriage over your children, that's perfectly normal. Be patient with yourself and each other as you navigate these new waters. Remember that your relationship won't just go back to what it was pre-kids, it will look different, but that isn't necessarily bad. As you move forward with your spouse, consider bonding by:

  • Going on weekly date nights.
  • Attending weekly therapy sessions to help you relearn to communicate sans kids.
  • Taking up a new sport or hobby together like bird watching, backpacking, or cross-country skiing.
  • Setting aside time to discuss your fears or concerns regarding the kids, and then when the time is up, put the conversation to bed. Don't let concern for the kids cloud your marital relationship.
  • Planning a trip for just the two of you.

Create a Support System

You needed your mom friends when the kids were little, so why wouldn't you need their love and support now? Reconnect with your old pals. Have lunch, take a trip or attend a class together. All of that attention you once paid your kids on the daily can now be dispersed to other people who are important in your life.

Women at reunion greeting and smiling
  • Make a conscious effort to text or call at least one person daily, so you ward off isolation.
  • Join a support group for empty nesters.
  • Meet with friends or family frequently.

Spending time with friends isn't only fun, it is key to an empty nester's well-being. A lack of social support has been proven to negatively impact an empty nester's well-being.

When Empty Nest Syndrome Is More Than You Can Manage

The signs and symptoms of empty nest syndrome can last for days, weeks, or longer. If you notice that the symptoms you are experiencing are:

  • Disturbing your sleep pattern
  • Creating changes in your weight and appetite
  • Contributing to a loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Creating difficulty concentrating and focusing
  • Causing a sense of worthlessness or guilt
  • Leading to thoughts of death or suicide

...then it is time to seek professional help. These are signs and symptoms of depression and should be worked through under the care of a professional. With the correct assessment, diagnosis, and treatment, you can overcome the symptoms of empty nest syndrome, or related conditions, and begin living out a new chapter in your life.

Learning to Love Your New Nest

Change is hard, especially drastic changes like suddenly living in a home no longer filled with children. In time, and with conscious practice and intent, you can learn to embrace this new stage of life and even love your newly empty nest. Remember, enjoying this new chapter in life doesn't mean you don't love or miss your children. It simply means that life continues to move forward, and you have to roll with it. Be proud of your children and their independence, and pave a new path for yourself, because you deserve a lifetime of happiness.

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