Empty Nest Syndrome
Although not a clinical diagnosis or disorder, “empty nest syndrome” refers to the general feeling of grief or sadness that is felt by parents or primary caregivers when the object of their care (usually their children) leaves home. The syndrome arises out of the profound loss of identity and purpose that parents have when they no longer have children to care for. This usually occurs when the last of the kids leave home to move into their own place, get married, or go to college, leaving the parents with an ‘empty nest’. We are led to believe that this syndrome tends to affect more women than men, because it is during this time that women also experience other events in their lives like menopause or caring for elderly parents, but that is not always the case. As men have become more involved in their children’s lives and are also dealing with their own aging parents, they are not immune to empty nest syndrome.
When it comes to empty nest syndrome, the best thing to do is to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the fact that you no longer have children to care for in the house. Consider these newfound advantages of this time of change in your life:
- This is a great time to reconnect with your spouse or partner (if you have one). Remember what the two of you were like before you became parents?
- You have more time to socialize and reconnect with friends or other family members.
- You can focus more on your career.
- You are free to do more of those niggling tasks you’ve always been meaning to complete.
- You have time to take up a new hobby.
- You have more time for self-care such as exercising, taking a class, or relaxing.
- You may even want to travel more and discover the world!
Of course, you will likely still miss that regular contact with your children, but there are things you can do to ease the pain of missing them and to foster a new kind of connection:
- Schedule regular online video meetings or phone calls.
- Texts or emails are good too – but you may want to hear their voice to feel more connected. Note: If you become particularly emotional during phone calls or video chats, then written communication may work better at first.
- If they are in the same location as you, try to make a new (or perhaps maintain an existing) family tradition such as Sunday dinners or getting together for monthly movie or games nights, or perhaps watching a favourite TV show together.
You’ll notice these are all structured or scheduled communication ideas. At first, limiting the communication is a good way of letting go little by little. The first times are always hard, both for the parent and the child. It’s important to remember that this is the most crucial time for your child to discover the world on their own, so this could be an emotional time for them as well. Try not to show them that you’re upset during every call and don’t expect your child to curtail their activities for you. The worst mistake would be to ask your child to come home if you are feeling the pangs of loneliness because the problem lies with you and not with the absence of your child.
Finally, go easy on yourself. This is a major change in your life and your family dynamics. With every change there is an ending, and with an ending usually comes grief. So it’s okay to feel sad, and even a little lost. Allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling. Take some downtime. But don’t wallow – set a time to move on and see this as a new and exciting phase in your life as well! And if you find you are just not able to cope or to move on, then you may want to get some support through this transition.
“Your child’s life will be filled with fresh experiences. It’s good if yours is as well” ~Dr. Margaret Rutherford
Symptoms & signs of empty nest syndrome
- Feeling overwhelmed and exhausted
- Abnormally anxious
- Feeling excessive grief or sadness
- Feeling irritable
- Your relationships are affected
- Your work is affected
- Your ability to cope or function is limited
- You find yourself coping with unhealthy choices (alcohol, drugs, food, unhealthy relationships, etc.)
When is it time to get help?
It’s normal to feel sad or out-of-sorts when your children leave home. The house can feel big and empty and you may feel like you have to get to know your spouse all over again as the focus has been on your children for so long! Once you get used to your new normal, life can be exciting again. You may be able to feel like newlyweds again and discover your own interests and feel free! However, if you are simply not able to come to terms with your new life without your children in it on a daily basis, or you are feeling alienated from your spouse, and maybe even your own life and identity, it may be time to seek help.
Perhaps you are anticipating going through a difficult time as this phase in your life is approaching – we can help you to prepare for this major life transition to help you get through it as smoothly as possible.
Empty nest syndrome treatment methods
There are no specific different treatment methods for dealing with empty nest syndrome. Depending on what you’re experiencing (grief, depression, anxiety etc.), or possibly even relationship issues, there are many treatment methods that can be successful such as:
- Mindfulness therapy is an approach to treatment that focuses on how people’s thoughts, emotions, and beliefs influence their behaviour and how they perceive themselves, others, and the world. The ability to be in the moment, to acknowledge and regulate your emotions helps you to break free from negative thought patterns.
- Acceptance and commitment therapy encourages clients to accept the difficulties and misfortunes of life. Clients learn coping techniques to not dwell on negative emotions by staying in the present.
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based approach to treatment that focuses on how people’s thoughts, emotions, and beliefs influence their behaviour and how they perceive themselves.
The best treatment method for you depends on your needs, personality, and what you’re experiencing. Your therapist will work with you to determine the most effective treatment method for you.
What will I get out of treatment with Insight Psychological?
Our therapists will support you (and if needed, your spouse – together or separately) and empower you to get through this major change in your life. We can educate, share coping strategies and tools you can use to help you get through this time of transition, provide support, and help you to see the opportunities that may now exist. We can also assist you in setting realistic goals and timelines for those goals.