How to Recognize and Deal with Empty Nest Syndrome

When children leave home for college, work or just to live on their own, it can be a difficult experience for a parent. You may feel shocked that they’ve left the nest and will no longer be living in your home.

There is a name for the feelings of loneliness and grief that parents experience when children leave home for the first time – empty nest syndrome.

“When my youngest child left home for her post-graduation, I felt a deep sense of loss and would often cry during the day after my husband left for work,” says Suneetha Balakrishnan, an independent journalist in Kerala, India.

Grief is almost inevitable when your child leaves home. Parents may intellectually understand that their child needs to move away for work or studies, but the strong emotions that an empty nest evokes can be hard to manage. You may worry about their safety, and whether they will be able to manage on their own in the world.

“I didn’t think I would have my phone velcroed to me in hopes of hearing from her even though I love my career and have friends, family and a marriage. I found that dealing with an empty nest is about grieving what will not return and allowing yourself to weep as needed,” says Natalie Caine, an empty-nester who also founded Empty Nest Support Services to help others through the transition.

Preparing For the Transition

Many parents are shocked that 17 or 18 years can pass by so quickly, and often feel lost when they’re confronted with their children leaving the nest for good. Preparing for this transition should start as early as possible.

“The departure of a child [from the home] can lead to the loss of an important role for the left-behind parent(s) and potentially a loss of identity. Parents who are the primary caregivers are at a higher risk of feeling the loss at a deeper level…taking on new interests and meeting new friends can be very useful. This is best done before the event takes place so there is a gentle transition between what was and how life [will be] going forward,” says Danny Hickling, an Integrative Counselor in the UK.

Rediscover Yourself

Cultivate a hobby that you love and get involved in meaningful work. What did you like to do before you became a mother or father? What did you have to sacrifice when you devoted all your energies to parenting? Reawaken that part of your life.

“I picked up a camera and started my early morning garden photography which I enjoy. I was a Speech and Language Therapist for decades. I re-invented my career and brought back the part of me that had been facilitating groups for decades,” says Caine.

“Look at the opportunities that this transition brings – it may leave space to enrich your life and allow yourself to catch up on the time [spent] whilst you were bringing up your children,” advises Hickling.

Reconnect with Your Spouse and Friends

Your primary focus may have been parenting for many years, but when your children leave the home, you have an opportunity to reconnect with your spouse and become more involved in each other’s lives again.

“My husband had to have heart surgery just around the time that my daughter left. So we were alone together for almost two months while I tended to him. We talked a lot, and now we have a renewed understanding and respect for each other,” says Balakrishnan.

“The one thing that does occur, especially when the only or last child leaves the home, is that the focus of attention turns to the relationship once again. The effects of this can vary enormously. For some, it can expose cracks in the relationship that have been suppressed ‘for the sake of the children’ – while for others… not having your children around 24/7, and [any] accompanying money worries, can lift, allowing a rekindling of the relationship,” says Hickling.

Single parents may find it especially difficult to deal with the transition because they may feel that they have no one to turn to. This will be a great time to reach out to friends, connect with your community, get involved in local clubs, try a book club or volunteer.

And watch out for signs of depression. It is natural to grieve, but if you find that your grief is too severe, it may be a good idea to visit a health professional.

Technology Can Help

In today’s world, it can be much easier to stay in touch with your children more regularly. You can talk to them on the phone, text them and schedule regular Skype sessions.

It’s also important to remember that ultimately, the happiness you seek is within yourself. “There is no permanent human companion for anyone,” Balakrishnan explains. “We have to develop the ability to be happy with our own selves.”

Look at your empty nest as the symbol of your achievement in raising capable and amazing human beings, and as an opportunity to rediscover and reconnect with yourself, your partner and your community.