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Just what is the “Empty Nest” Syndrome?

Has your last child grown up and ready to leave home or perhaps already moved out? If so you may be experiencing some mixed emotions. Find out why the empty nest syndrome happens and what you can do about it.

Just what is the “Empty Nest” Syndrome?

  • The “Empty Nest” Syndrome is not a clinical condition but a useful “label” for the general feeling of grief or loneliness that parents may feel when their children leave home

  • The syndrome takes it name from young birds flying out of their nests once they are old enough to fly, leaving their parents behind

  • It is an important transition in the family life cycle when children “leave the nest” and parents have to adjust their lives accordingly

  • The “Empty Nest” phase has both positive and negative potential, therefore it is important to have an understanding and be aware of factors that may affect adjustment to this transition

Emotions and reactions associated with the “Empty Nest” Syndrome:

  • It is normal for parents to miss their children after they move away from home. After all they probably spent the majority of the last 18 years or so with them

  • Normal feelings may include but are not limited to:

  • emptiness

  • loss of purpose because raising, parenting and disciplining their child is no longer their primary role in life

  • anxiety over the welfare of the child

  • rejection due to the belief that the child does not need them anymore

  • guilt over lost opportunities to be more involved in the lives of their child before they left home

  • These may last the first few weeks or months their child has moved away

  • Negative emotions and reactions are usually only temporary and should gradually disappear as parents soon adjust to their child leaving home

  • However some people are more at risk for developing ongoing negative reactions.

  • However, there are some people who have difficulty overcoming the “loss” of their child and could find themselves with the following severe reactions:

  • crying excessively

  • unbearable feelings of sadness

  • not wanting to go to work or mix with friends

  • feeling as if your life is worthless

  • sense of hopelessness

  • depressed mood most of the day

  • If ‘untreated’ the individual’s negative reactions may become overwhelming. This could result in them developing depression or other mental and physical health problems.

  • It is therefore important to seek professional help if the above symptoms persist and before more serious consequences develop

  • Counselling will assist in getting the individual’s feelings into perspective and to learning new coping skills in order to adapt to this life transition

How common is it? Myth versus reality:

  • Research now challenges ideas about the “Empty Nest” which is supposed to be a difficult transition, especially for women

  • Although some women do have problems at this time, they are far outnumbered by those who find the departure quite liberating. I wonder how many young adults would be surprised to learn their parents experienced a sense of relief when they left home!

  • Recent studies have in fact shown that although parents feel some sadness at their children leaving home, a majority experienced marital happiness and more leisure time.

  • Parents can now utilize their new found free time to engage in activities that do not revolve around their children. No more lift clubs and compulsory school events!

  • Once children leave home there may be fewer responsibilities, less financial stress, more privacy and time. Therefore it is an optimal time for couples to rediscover and rekindle their relationship

  • However it is important to note that in the last decade there has been an increase in the “Boomerang Generation”. This is the “refilling of the nest” by grown children returning home to live with their parents. For instance in South Africa, which has a serious lack of job opportunities, the young adult may return home for financial support. Other reasons children return may be due to divorce, drug/alcohol problems, or temporary transitions. This results in ongoing dependence on their parents and studies show this can be more stressful than the “Empty Nest” Syndrome.

How can a parent learn to lovingly ‘let go’ of their children?

  • Understand that children moving away from home is a culmination of a long process of gradually “letting go” that started in childhood and gained momentum

  • This can be done by slowly allowing them more independence and responsibilities for example getting their driver’s licence, being absent from home more, voicing their own opinions, having their own taste in clothes, food, music and spending more time with friends rather than family. The loss will then be more gradual as they are stretching their wings ready to fly out the nest.

  • Recognize your child is an autonomous individual who needs to be encouraged to pursue their individual lives by leaving home rather than trying to hold on to him/her

  • Understand that when your child leaves home it does not signify the end of your relationship with them

  • Parents need to know that although children may not need their guidance and economic assistance, they still need their interest and emotional support

  • Therefore it is important to realise there is a difference between “letting go” of your children and “cutting them off”

How can parents prepare for this ‘inevitable’ occurrence?

  • Plan ahead for the day when your child moves away from home. Small changes over time will mean less of a shock when the day finally arrives.

  • Help prepare your children for their departure so that they can take care of themselves. This will decrease your anxiety over their welfare. For example teaching basic essentials like doing their own laundry, cooking for themselves, the value of money

  • Communicate with your child about feelings and concerns either of you have regards moving

Coping skills for parents experiencing this syndrome and for moving forward with life?

  • Allow yourself to be upset about your child leaving home. Discuss this grief with those close to you for example your spouse, relatives, friends or a professional

  • Share feelings with other parents who may be having similar experiences

  • If you feel overwhelmed by feelings, keep a journal to write down your thoughts

  • One of the best ways to cope when children leave home is for parents to keep in contact with them. Cell phones, text messaging, social networking sites (although many children choose not to be ‘friends’ with their parents on Facebook!) Internet, Skype with a webcam all allow for increased communication between parents and children.

  • Understand that initially your child may feel lonely and homesick, but once they get involved in new activities and make new friends, these feelings soon disappear. Resist the urge to rescue them by suggesting they give up and come back home.

  • Rekindle the relationship with your spouse

  • Rediscover your friendships

  • Review your dreams that you may have put on the “back burner” whilst dedicating time to your children. Write a list of all the things you promised you would do “one day” and turn them into a reality

  • Focus on personal life goals. Set yourself small achievable goals at first. For example if you wanted to study, rather do a short course first rather than launch yourself into a three year degree!

  • Set yourself new career goals. When my eldest daughter left home I decided to study Psychology as it had been a career dream I had put on hold. I have now been able to realise that dream. It is never too late!

  • If you were a full-time parent, go back to work

  • This could include volunteer work in your community

  • Network with friends and associates to uncover employment opportunities

  • Pursue hobbies and interests now that there is possibly more leisure time. I have a colleague who always wanted to take piano lessons but spent her time ‘taxiing’ her children to extra mural lessons so she never had time for herself. When her children left home she took up those piano lessons she had always wanted and is really enjoying them. Her husband now has time to pursue his golf interests.

  • Plan a trip

  • Indulge yourself, for example visit a spa, take a long scented bubble bath

  • Use this opportunity for self-exploration

  • Keep up regular routines and self-care such as eating healthily and exercising regularly

  • It is important to understand that each situation is unique, and what might work for one parent may not work for another

  • Put off making any big life decisions like selling up and moving to a smaller house until you feel ready

  • Give yourself time to adapt to the change without your child

  • Be proud of yourselves for raising children who are now able to go out into the world on their own!


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