Empty Nest Syndrome
My youngest child recently moved out. I cry at the simplest things and I am feeling an overwhelming sadness. Is this normal?
Signed: Empty Nest
Dear Empty Nest,
Yes, what you are experiencing is very common. Many of us have heard the term before – Empty Nest Syndrome. This is the mixed bag of emotions that parents may feel when their children get older and leave home. Perhaps your now almost-adult child is going away to school; or are moving into their first apartment on their own or with friends. We likely feel a great sense of pride that our child has become independent and has branched out on their own. But we also grieve the loss of a way of life that was part of our own identity – our role as primary caregiver.
When our children leave the nest (especially when it is our last/youngest child), we will often experience feelings of sadness, anxiety, worry (for our child’s safety and wellbeing), loneliness and a loss of purpose. Just as children moving out of the home is a normal developmental stage, Empty Nest Syndrome is a normal human lifestyle stage (it is not a clinical diagnosis). And although we all have different experiences, this stage can be especially difficult for women (as they are often the primary emotional caregiver).
Retiring from full time parenthood may get us wondering “who am I if my kids don’t need me now?” or “what is my purpose?” On top of this, there may be other mid-life (age 40 to 65) losses that coincide with the timing of our Empty Nest Syndrome experience (including menopause, health issues, physical limitations that begin to develop, job changes or retirement, the task of caring for aging parents, the death of a parent, and relationship shifts with our other children, our partner, or our friends).
All of this can seem overwhelming. It begs the question – how long does this Empty Nest stage last? There is no easy answer to this. One study found that it takes parents an average of three months to process this type of grief and be able to adjust to a quieter household. For others it may just be a few weeks; and for some it may take years.
According to Caren Robinstein’s book Beyond the Mommy Years: How to Live Happily After…After the Kids Leave Home (2007), there are three stages we can expect to experience during our process of Empty Nest Syndrome:
The first stage is grief, and the only way through grief is to mourn. We need to allow ourselves time to feel sad, angry, lonely, etc. Although our job as a parent never ends, the previous responsibilities do change drastically. Be sure to take gentle care and give yourself space to process this transition (connect to whatever feelings you are having and release them fully), however long it takes.
The second stage is relief. After a few weeks or months (this varies for everyone), we will start to find relief as we appreciate the new relationship dynamic that is emerging with our child. We will also begin to embrace our new found freedom and the extra time we have to explore this new stage of who we want to become (for many years, we likely put this on hold in some capacity, in order to be a good parent).
And the last stage that Caren Robinstein mentions is joy. We start to settle into our new lifestyle, establishing fresh interests and networks. We have moved past the heartache, adjusted to the different relationship we have with our child, and found the joy and purpose in this next and new chapter of our own adventure.
Here are some suggestions for ways to rediscover your purpose as you move forward to the joy stage:
Balance staying connected to your child while also respecting their need for independence. This shift is also a part of becoming their friend. Although they may not be staying in touch as much as you would like, it is important to find ways to accept your child’s time limitations so you can maximize the connection you do have without filling it with guilt trips and expressions of disappointment.
Create new traditions for holidays and special events. Ask your child what parts of the old traditions they want to keep and what parts they may need to change. Be flexible as you make modifications so the truly special parts of the rituals can still be incorporated and kept alive. For example, a Christmas lunch may be more convenient than a dinner, as there may now be expanded considerations and commitments.
Connect with friends (or reconnect with old friends). Or perhaps contact another parent you knew through children’s shared activities. They too may be struggling with Empty Nest Syndrome, and together you can help encourage and support one another through this change.
Keep your mind and body active. Volunteer, join a club or recreation center, declutter your space, resume or start a new hobby, travel, learn a new language, pursue new career goals, or take a personal interest course. Find ways to experience fulfillment in your own life, on a regular basis. (One option for educational or fun learning is the Edmonton Lifelong Learners Association (ELLA) in partnership with the University of Alberta Faculty of Extension. They offer affordable courses for anyone over the age of 50.)
If the symptoms of Empty Nest Syndrome persist, seeking support from a counsellor can be helpful. Therapy can provide an encouraging space to process emotions and develop coping strategies. Although Empty Nest Syndrome may be a painful part of your journey for a while, you will eventually move into finding a renewed focus on personal growth, interests, and goals. Be ready to embrace the new opportunity, meaning and joy that awaits in this new phase!
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