coping with empty nest syndrome

By Lisa Cuseo-Ott, Ph.D., November 2013

If you were one of the many parents who packed and transported your youngest child to college this fall, you may have returned to a quiet household, one without the constant flurry of your child, homework, extracurricular activities and your child’s friends. Some shedding of tears is natural as you miss the activity and not having daily contact with your son or daughter. Many parents have walked into their absent child’s room only to become tearful as they scan the emptiness. The transition from primary parental duties to an “empty nest” household does not have to be a time of persistent loss and sadness. Rather, the transition to “empty nest” can represent a great opportunity to explore new activities and identities, not to mention improving the quality of one’s current relationships at home.

The term “empty nest syndrome” has been used to describe a phenomenon in which parents experience feelings of sadness and loss when the last child leaves the home (Mayo Clinic, 2013). When these feelings persist and turn into elements of depression, it is time to learn coping techniques and to understand the underlying reasons for the difficulty in transitioning to this stage of life. There are various reasons for this sadness, each of which suggest what is missing in the parent’s life and thus how to resolve problems in the “empty nest” stage of life.

For example, individuals who strongly identify with their role as parents often have a hard time getting accustomed to their children’s independence. Stay-at-home mothers or fathers, for example, define their role in the family as the one who manages children and the household. Suddenly, there are no more children in the household to worry about or to take care of. When this is the case, the parent needs to begin developing outside activities well before the last child leaves the home. There is no need to feel guilty about self-care and the development of outside identities. This type of balance ultimately makes one a better parent.

Related to the lack of separate identity is the issue of parents being too involved in their children’s lives and needing their companionship. This may occur in a single family household, where the parent and child have faced the world together. As long as there are children at home, this parent may have put his or her own personal life and the development of relationships on hold. Now that the parent is an “empty nester,” he or she will have more time to develop relationships and seek authentic companionship.

Finally, this stage of life may highlight problems in the marriage of intact families. It is very easy to avoid dealing with your spouse when there are children’s needs to address and extracurricular activities to attend. “Empty nest syndrome” often hits hardest with couples who have not nurtured their relationship over the years. This is why it is important to spend time together as a couple, even when the children are very young. Parents who have a strong, healthy relationship with each other will tend to be better parents because they will work together in raising children, and will enjoy each other’s companionship when the children leave home.

In order to prevent problems with “empty nest syndrome,” it is best to develop balance between self and parental identity, as well as to nurture healthy personal relationships with friends and significant others throughout the years when the children are at home. It is never too early to prepare for the time when our children will no longer need us on a daily basis. The fact that we have launched children into independence means that we have done our jobs as parents. It is time to celebrate this new stage of development and increase the time for ourselves and our personal relationships.