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 Hebert's two 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," says the 49-year-old legal secretary from Rhode Island.
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
While specific circumstances vary from family to family, the feelings parents experience also vary. These may include feelings of:
In some cases, parents may experience symptoms associated with clinical depression or adjustment disorder, including:
People experiencing any of these symptoms should see their doctor.
Accepting the Grief
One of the first and most important things parents must do if they are having difficulty with the empty nest, say the experts, is to acknowledge that they have experienced a loss and that it is okay to grieve that loss.
"It's a real form of loss," says Sandy Wasserman, co-author, with Lauren Schaffer, of 133 Ways to Avoid Going Cuckoo When the Kids Fly the Nest. Your family has changed and it is okay to feel sad about it. If your feelings of sadness are overwhelming, consider talking to your doctor about it.
An equally important step parents must take to cope with their loss is to seek out support, says Robert L. Smith, PhD, executive director of the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors. Dr. Smith recommends engaging the assistance of friends, family, or community or religious groups. It may help to talk to friends or neighbors who are going through the same thing.
And "if someone is really down in the dumps and maybe shows signs of clinical depression, they should definitely seek the help of a counselor," says Dr. Smith.
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.
"It's helpful to start preparing and acknowledging in advance," says Dr. Smith, who recommends that all family members communicate with each other about their feelings regarding the impending lifestyle changes.
Wasserman recommends that parents get particularly involved in their kids' senior year in high school and try to "enjoy the process of the child starting to leave."
It's also important, Dr. Smith says, for parents to have activities or interests in addition to those related to the children. Wasserman and Schaffer put it more bluntly: "Have a life." This may mean a job, volunteer work, or hobbies or activities unrelated to child-rearing, so that when the kids leave, it's not as if the parents' entire lives are walking out the door.
Shifting the Focus
Focusing on the positive aspects of an empty nest can also help parents deal with their sadness.
One such positive aspect is having more time to devote to activities you may not have had enough time for before, such as travel, paid or volunteer work, or a new hobby. For example, when Wasserman's kids left, she seized the opportunity to pursue a lifelong passion—learning to play the mandolin.
Hebert 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, Schaffer and Wasserman want parents to remember that if their kids are ready and willing to fly the coop, it's usually a reflection of good parenting.
"If they're ready to leave," Wasserman says, "then we've done a good job."
American Psychological Association
Mental Health America
Canadian Mental Health Association
Canadian Psychological Association
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.or.... Published September 2, 2010. Accessed August 9, 2011.
Lauer RH and Lauer JC. How to Survive and Thrive in an Empty Nest: Reclaiming Your Life When Your Children Have Grown . New Harbinger Publishing; 1999.
Schaffer L and Wasserman SF. 133 Ways to Avoid Going Cuckoo When the Kids Fly the Nest: A Parent's Guide for Surviving Empty Nest Syndrome . Three Rivers Press; 2001.
Last reviewed August 2011 by Brian Randall, MD