Once the oldest last child leaves home, many parents experience feelings of sadness and loneliness. Empty nest syndrome isn't a clinical diagnosis, but it's a term used to describe these feelings. These feelings can be confusing and surprising as they seem to conflict with feelings of pride for your child’s accomplishments. Learn more about how to manage empty nest syndrome, accept your conflicting feelings, and when to seek help.
Dealing With the Changes
You may also have a lot of conflicting feelings. You feel pride in your child and what they accomplished and also feel lost now that you don't have the day-to-day job of taking care of your child.
For most parents, this is a short-lived transition phase that only lasts a few months. In the meantime, there are measures you can take to help deal with transition, including:
- Accept that your feelings are normal.
- Consider starting a new career or starting a part-time job if you haven't been working.
- Take a class you're interested in.
- Take up a new hobby or one you've put on hold while taking care of your children.
- Volunteer for a cause you care about.
- Use technology to keep in touch with your children.
- Realize that your role as a parent has changed, not ended.
- Don't turn to alcohol or other vices to cope.
Preparing for an Empty Nest
If your child hasn't left home yet, now is the time to start preparing for this new phase of your life. There are few roles more meaningful than being a parent, but the more meaningful a role is in your life, the more difficult it is to accept when it changes. Many parents feel lost and describe feeling that their primary identity has changed or disappeared.
To get ready for this new phase of life and explore new roles, here are some steps to take before your child leaves home:
- Make a list of all of your current roles besides being a parent. Think of the roles that involve a significant investment of your time and energy. This could include roles such as: spouse, sibling, child, friend, employee, and volunteer.
- Go through your list and think about which of those roles you'd like to expand. Maybe you want to work on your career or spend more time with your friends. Or maybe this is the perfect time to rekindle the romance with your spouse. If you aren't married, this could be the perfect time to start dating.
- Brainstorm a list of new interests you'd like to explore. Think of hobbies you enjoyed before you had children or hobbies that you never had the time to try. Look for local groups, clubs, or meetups that revolve around these interests and can help you find community.
- Don't wait until your children leave home to start exploring your new roles and interests. Go ahead and sign up for a class or arrange lunch with a friend. You may not feel as excited as you hope at first, but your new activities and interests will help make your adjustment to your new life quicker and easier.
Focus on the Positives
A new line of research is showing that empty nest syndrome may not be so bad. Many parents report positive changes after their children leave home, including:
- More freedom
- Better connection with their spouses
- Time to pursue their own goals
- Pride and joy in seeing their children succeed
- Improved relationships with their children
- Better relationships with their siblings
- Fewer day-to-day stressors
- Continued involvement in their children's college and adult lives
When to Seek Help
Some people have a higher risk of developing empty nest syndrome, including:
- Single parents
- People in unhappy marriages
- Parents of only children
- Parents who are worried about their children's safety
- Younger parents
- Parents who lack social support
Whether you are in a high-risk group or not, you should seek help if you have symptoms of depression that last for more than two weeks. Symptoms of depression include:
- Sleeping too much, or not enough
- Feeling sad
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Tiredness or lack of energy
- Feeling guilty or worthless
- Trouble concentrating or making decisions
- Thinking about death or suicide
Depression is a common, but serious, medical condition that can negatively affect all aspects of your life. Depression is different from sadness and grief, but sometimes grief can lead to depression. Fortunately, depression can be treated. Between 80 and 90% of people with depression benefit from treatment. Talk with your doctor if you have symptoms of depression that last more than two weeks. They can provide a more thorough evaluation and recommend treatment if needed, which may include therapy with a separate provider and medicine such as antidepressants.