When you’re raising children, the time will come when they spread their wings and fly, leaving you in an empty nest. Parents deal with an empty nest in two ways—they either thrive or just survive. For those who feel like their breath has been knocked out of them when their last child leaves home, they are just surviving. These parents could be experiencing empty nest syndrome.
In this article, we will help you understand what empty nest syndrome is, what its possible causes are, what symptoms to look for, and what you can do about it.
What is empty nest syndrome?
The empty nest happens when a family transitions from the stage of raising children into a season of just parents living in the home. Empty nest syndrome (ENS) represents the feelings of loss, grief, anxiety, and stress parents can experience when their children leave the home.
Most couples who are empty nesters are married although single parents can suffer from empty nest syndrome as well, sometimes with greater emotional distress since they enter this season without a parent-partner.
Mothers seem to be more susceptible to empty nest syndrome than fathers because they are usually more involved with child-rearing. When all the kids have left, empty nest anxiety can be far more pronounced in moms than in dads because so much of their life has been about taking care of others.
ENS can develop over a period of time, or it can strike in a moment. It’s not too early to start making a plan for facing it down.
Causes of empty nest syndrome
Here are some possible causes and how they lead to empty nest issues:
- Worrying about your child. Many parents are afraid their children won’t be able to make it independently of them. Worrying about your child’s welfare is never a bad thing, but if your own health suffers because of it, you could be dealing with empty nest syndrome.
- Losing your identity. Today’s parents are more connected to their children’s lives, almost making a career out of parenting, especially if they don’t have full-time employment. When empty nest syndrome happens, a parent who has devoted almost 20 years of their life to caring for a child can experience a loss of identity and self.
- Marriage issues. When your children are leaving the nest, you may feel like your marriage will suffer. Will you find that you have nothing in common with your spouse or nothing to talk about now that the kids’ daily life isn’t a steady topic? While some spouses do report becoming closer in an empty nest, others struggle to stay connected without the commonality of the children.
Symptoms of empty nest syndrome
The symptoms of empty nest syndrome can vary from person to person. Some parents can experience grief, anxiety, isolation, and stress. Others feel they have lost control and have no purpose. These symptoms can lead to physical problems such as headaches, digestive issues, and sleep disturbances.
In extreme cases, a parent can experience depression. This can be worse for mothers going through menopause and empty nest syndrome at the same time.
Fathers play a prominent role in their children’s lives, so empty nest syndrome can be real for them, too. Some fathers turn to substance abuse, start drinking heavily, or overeat in order to cope with their emotions.
How to deal with the stages of empty nest syndrome
How long does empty nest syndrome last? There is good news: it usually doesn’t last a long time. There are no statistics, but a fun survey of 2,000 empty nesters claims that it takes 3 months and 14 days to get over the children not being around anymore.
With this encouraging thought, let’s look at some of the things empty nesters can do during the stages of empty nest syndrome and how to avoid empty nest syndrome.
1. Let your goals evolve
The years of taking care of your children required hard work, and so will transitioning to an empty nest. It’s going to take effort to switch the external focus you’ve had for so long to an internal focus that may seem selfish.
You’ve focused on raising a tiny human for many years. While creating a new routine may seem intimidating, it can be a chance for you to build a day that showcases your desires and goals.
Your goals as a parent have different phases—when your baby becomes a toddler, your adolescent becomes a teenager, and, finally, when your high schooler sets off for college. When your kids become independent, you have accomplished your last goal with them. It’s time for you to move on to your next goal—becoming a successful empty nester.
2. Find yourself again
Finding your identity in an empty nest will be impossible if you don’t feel you have an identity apart from being a parent. What hobbies did you have before becoming a parent? Is there an activity you have discovered that you want to learn more about? Is there a passion or dream you have wanted to pursue but have never thought it was possible?
Realize deeply that the present moment is all you have. Make the now the primary focus of your life— Eckart Tolle
You’ll always be a parent; this does not change, but you will not always be raising your kids. Empty nest is the time to find a life beyond those parenting years.
3. Train your mind for purpose
Learn what your new purpose is by listening to your thoughts. You decide which thoughts get to take up permanent residence in your mind.
Thoughts like “I will be lonely” or “I will no longer have a purpose” can be much louder than “I have a chance for new adventures” or “I can do something for myself now.” Learn how to work through your emotions and train your mind to see things from a new perspective.
4. Don’t isolate yourself
Some empty nesters, especially mothers, can experience empty nest depression because they don’t interact with others. In practicing self-care during the empty nest season, it’s important to network with like-minded people. Go to art classes, book clubs, meet-up groups…anything that will keep you connected with other adults.
Dealing with an empty nest as a single parent will require more effort as many single parents already feel isolated from their married peers. Find people you can engage and interact with without the pressures of having to feel like you need to be one half of a whole.
5. Invest in your marriage
Here’s more encouragement—63% of empty nester couples become closer after the kids move out. Do you remember what it was that drew you to your spouse and then made you love them?
Those dates, trips, and adventures before the years of raising kids can happen again with some time and investment. Make an empty nest bucket list and talk with your spouse about all those things you can do together now that you don’t have to pack a diaper bag or run the carpool.
Take time to talk with each other and communicate your fears and grief when you start to face living together in an empty nest. Just as you should not isolate yourself from social circles, it’s even more important not to isolate yourself from your life partner.
- Release My Grip by Kami Gilmore is a collection of stories to encourage and equip parents to let their children fly.
- My Nest Isn’t Empty, It Just Has More Closet Space by Lisa Scottoline with Francesca Scottoline Serritella will show parents there’s a silver lining to having an empty nest, like more room for shoes.
- Barbara and Susan’s Guide to the Empty Nest by Barbara Rainey and Susan Yates is filled with tips for moms dealing with the emotions of having an empty nest.
- From Mom to Me Again by Melissa T. Shultz is a guide to help moms survive the 1st year of empty nest and reinvent themselves.
- Walking on Eggshells by Jane Isay helps parents navigate through engaging with their adult children.
- Facing Down Empty Nest Syndrome by Cynthia MacGregor gives practical insights and suggestions for how to build a new life for yourself in an empty nest.
Remember that your child-raising days will come to an end, and you’ll have to let your kids go. Take steps to face down empty nest syndrome. Spend time finding your identity outside of being a parent. Set new goals for yourself. Focus on your thoughts and decide which ones get to stay in your mind. Stay motivated to do the things that keep you involved with others, especially if you’re a single parent. If you’re married, rekindle the romance with your spouse, pursue new adventures, and set new goals for the two of you.
Be prepared to recognize if you’re experiencing symptoms and signs of empty nest syndrome. Don’t be embarrassed to seek professional help if you have these symptoms for a long period of time, or they are interfering with your daily activities.