It may seem like it was just yesterday that you brought your first, second, or third child home from the hospital. Now, it might feel as if the past decade-plus has been a film that’s been on fast-forward from the very beginning. As the flick plays in your head, you may recall countless playdates, band practices, scout meetings, and family outings.
While you may revel in the images that combine to make that movie playing in your head, there’s a chance that you’ll still suffer from empty nest syndrome when your last child leaves the figurative coop. When kids leave the house for good, it can be difficult for parents and caregivers to adjust to their new roles.
Although it can be challenging for those left behind when a child leaves home once and for all, it’s not impossible for you to move forward in a positive way. Just like your adult children are embarking on a new chapter of their lives, their departure from your home allows you to do the same. That is, their departure gives you the opportunity to do the same if you’re open to it.
Treat Yourself to an Adventure
If you’re feeling the effects of Empty Nest Syndrome, have a date night and try Adventures From Scratch: Date Edition! Tackle any of the 50+ scratch-off challenges, enjoy meaningful conversations using the prompts, or tell your partner how much you love them using one of the tear-out cards. Every adventure is a surprise!
A Look at Empty Nest Syndrome
Embracing the opportunities that being an empty nester typically presents starts with understanding what empty nest syndrome is. The syndrome basically accounts for the feelings of loss, sadness, anxiety, and lack of purpose that often plague parents when their kids leave home on a presumably permanent basis.
Even though there is no clinical diagnosis for the condition, empty nest syndrome is a very real thing that often strikes adults with children at midlife, typically when those grown-ups are between the ages of 40 and 60 years old in many cases. Life events like a divorce, remarriage, or menopause and different life stages, such as bearing children later than average or raising grandchildren as if they’re your own during your retirement years, can impact when the empty nest syndrome will strike.
In general, empty nesters adjust and get over the syndrome in about two months or so. Some people may continue to grapple with the syndrome’s symptoms and real-life effects for longer, sometimes for years. Individuals who are going through a difficult time for different reasons, such as the existence of a health problem or the loss of a job, are more prone to wrestle with the syndrome for a longer stretch than people who don’t have similar stressors.
It’s common for people to liken the empty nest syndrome to the cycle of grief as individuals who are struck by the condition often go through similar stages of mourning. Here are the five stages that combine to make up the grieving process and a brief explanation of each one:
- Denial: A refusal to accept the facts of the matter
- Anger: Being upset with yourself and/or others
- Bargaining: Negotiating with a perceived higher power to influence the outcome of the situation or reality or making deals with yourself
- Depression: Uncertainty, fear, regret, and overwhelming sadness
- Acceptance: Becoming emotionally detached and/or refusing to resist your new reality any longer
Symptoms of Empty Nest Syndrome
While men and women are equally vulnerable to empty nest syndrome, single parents, stay-at-home caregivers, and individuals who define themselves by their parenting lives are more apt to grapple with severe symptoms of the condition. It’s important to be cognizant of the syndrome’s symptoms so you can take fast action if you notice that the condition has morphed from being a difficult time of transition into a more serious problem that requires professional attention.
A Loss of Purpose
Many parents throw themselves into family life when they have kids. When their children are young, adults spend time nurturing and providing for their children’s needs around the clock. As their kids mature, parents often find themselves consumed with their children’s activities. Attending games, performances, and recitals, helping out with homework, carpooling, and arranging birthday parties and parent-teacher conferences are examples of activities that occupy a lot of time for most parents.
When your last child heads off to college or moves out to join the workforce, you may feel like your life no longer has any purpose. In extreme cases, that empty, purposeless feeling can make it difficult to drag yourself out of bed in the morning.
Irritation with the Loss of Control
Parents normally control their children’s lives, particularly when their kids are young. While you may have given up some control when your kids hit their teenage years and earned some independence, some parents struggle to relinquish all of their control when their young adults move out.
Grown-ups who have difficulty giving up the control they once had over their children’s lives and those who simply refuse to do so often become helicopter parents. While you might think that sounds cool, know that it’s not.
Helicopter parents are adults who insert themselves into the lives of their adult children and hover about them. No matter how pure your intentions might be, research shows that helicopter parenting creates a lower sense of well-being in young adults who are college-age.
Excessive Worry or Anxiety
It’s not unusual for the parents of newly departed kids to worry excessively or feel anxious about their children’s well-being, especially if they haven’t yet relinquished control of their kids. Although it’s natural to worry about your kids regardless of their ages and levels of experience in the “real world,” it’s unhealthy when that worry or anxiety becomes an obsession that results in you making phone calls and planning surprise visits with your children incessantly and intrusively.
Profound Sense of Loss
When they say goodbye to their live-in children for the last time, some parents are left with a deep sense of loss. While that problem is an issue in its own right, it can also create other problems, according to the Mayo Clinic. Those problems may include:
- Marital strife
- Identity crises
- Alcoholism or substance abuse
- Sleep disorders
Letting go of your adult child as he embarks on a new life without you is distressing to many caretakers and parents. That distress can cause you to experience seemingly spontaneous emotions over things that normally wouldn’t upset you.
You may experience feelings of sadness when you see an upsetting commercial or you drive by your child’s elementary school. Alternatively, you might catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror and get scared that you’re getting older. You may get frustrated with not having achieved the status you thought you would have by now. Some parents even report feeling resentful of their children for having left them all alone.
Sometimes, parents get restless when their child leaves home to start an independent life. If you’re restless, you may find it difficult to concentrate or stay focused on the task at hand. You may also find it hard to redirect all the energy you would have expended on your child into other productive activities, and you end up fidgeting.
Even if you have a partner, a ton of friends, and social coworkers, you may discover that you feel lonely after your last child leaves home. There are few things worse than feeling like you’re all alone even when you’re surrounded by familiar faces, but that sensation is a common feeling among empty nesters.
If you find that you cry a lot for long periods for two weeks or more, you feel helpless, or you get overly frustrated and irritated over small things, it might be a sign that you’re falling into the grips of depression. Here are some additional signs that your empty nest syndrome has taken a potentially dangerous turn toward a more serious mental health problem that may require professional help to overcome:
- Feelings of emptiness and/or hopelessness
- Loss of interest in your usual activities
- Sleep disorders, such as sleeping too much or insomnia
- A lack of interest in daily activities and hobbies or feeling like everything takes more effort than usual
- Reduced appetite or unexpected weight loss
- Increased food cravings and weight gain
- Difficulty making decisions, concentrating, or thinking clearly
- Unexplained physical issues like persistent headaches or neck pain
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Recurring thoughts about death and/or suicide
- Frequent agitation
How to Cope With Empty Nest Syndrome
“Psychology Today” reports that research indicates that empty nest syndrome has been “overblown” in recent years. The respected authority continues by reporting that many parents have a harder time when their kids exit their early childhood years and enter middle school.
While that might be the case for some parents, it doesn’t exonerate them or any other parent from the very real possibility that they may experience at least a mild case of empty nest syndrome. Whether you experience a mild case of the syndrome, a severe case, or your experience lands somewhere in between, you need to know how to cope with empty nest syndrome so you can adjust to your new life in a healthy manner.
Establish and Maintain an Open Line of Communication with Your Loved One
Before your adult child moves out, establish an open line of communication with her. Ask her about her experiences growing up in your home. While you don’t necessarily want to conduct an exit interview, you do want to establish the foundation for the next phase of your relationship with your child.
Talk to your child about how the two of you will communicate moving forward. Will she call on the same day and at the same time every week, or would she prefer to video chat every evening? Does your daughter plan to remain in contact with other family members like your significant other through you, or does she want to have joint exchanges on a platform like Zoom?
Once you and your child establish what your future line of communication will look like, do your best to avoid crossing any boundaries the two of you agree on. Remember, helicopter parenting sometimes leads to a reduced sense of well-being among college-age individuals.
Spend Time Getting to Know Your Adult Children on Their Terms
Just like the means of communication may change when your kids move out, so will your relationship with them. As they go out into the real world, your kids will start to deal with adult issues and pressures that are likely all too familiar to you, such as paying bills, stretching their dollars, and dealing with conflict at work.
Instead of telling your kids what to do about those issues, you can relate to their experiences and support them with genuine empathy. You can even share some pearls of wisdom offered up as a friend rather than directives issued by a parent.
Embrace Your Freedom
Parents who work outside their home and stay-at-home parents may find that they have downtime for the first time in years when their children move out. Rather than running their kids from one activity to the other or making brown bag lunches for the next day, these parents are now free of their years-long obligations.
One of the keys to beating empty nest syndrome is to embrace your newfound freedom. Your newly discovered “me” or “us” time is like a reward for all the time you invested in your children’s lives instead of your own growth and development. You deserve this time, and it’s yours to spend however you’d like.
Don’t postpone taking advantage of your freedom. Recent events, such as the spread of the coronavirus, have led many young people to return to their familiar nest after a difficult or failed attempt at launching into adulthood. In July, 2020, the Pew Research Center reported that 52 percent of young adults aged 18 – 29 years old were living with one or both of their parents, a figure that surpassed the previous record of 48 percent of fledgling adults living with their parents near the end of the Great Depression in 1940.
In February, 2020, approximately 47 percent of young adults lived with their parents, marking a sharp jump between that month and July of the same year. That percent change represents 2.6 million adult children who returned home over the ensuing five months. The number of adult children who returned home during that span rose the most among the youngest adults, meaning people in the 18 – 24-year-old age group.
Adults who return home to live with their parents are often referred to as “boomerang” children. With more than half of young adults currently living with their folks after they’d moved out presumably for good, there is a strong chance that your kids will eventually return home at least temporarily. While you may welcome their return, you should still make the most of your freedom before you give them the key to your home again.
Revisit Previous Passions
As a parent, it’s likely that you put aside things you were once passionate about so you could tend to your kids. Now that your children are out of the house, why don’t you pick up where you left off and dive back into the things you’re still passionate about?
It’s important to choose activities that are meaningful to you. When you engage in activities you don’t truly care about, you won’t succeed in filling the void left behind by your kids. If you do things that give you a purpose again, you’ll find that void will fill up pretty quickly.
Pick Up a New Hobby
Have you lost interest in the hobbies you used to love? If so, don’t beat yourself up. People change as do their interests as they enter new phases of life. Look at your current situation as an opportunity to pick up a new hobby or two.
If you’re struggling with loneliness, it’s wise to pick a hobby that involves others instead of one you’ll do on your own. Do you have an interest in art? Enroll in an art class rather than painting or sculpting at home. Do you want to pursue a master’s degree? Register for in-person classes instead of enrolling in online courses.
Focus on Your Relationship
Many parents struggle to connect with their partners after their children move out. In many cases, people find that they’ve spent so much time focusing on their kids over the years that they’ve grown apart from their significant other.
Now that the kids are gone, it’s a great time for you and your SO to focus on the relationship you share. To better connect with your partner, find something the two of you can do together. You two don’t have to choose an activity that you’re both passionate about. Instead, you simply have to agree on something that you’re both willing to do to improve your relationship.
One thing you may want to do to reconnect with your partner is order “Adventures from Scratch: Couples Edition.” This book includes 55+ adventures you and your SO can do at home or on the fly at a vacation destination. Each adventure is meant to bring couples closer together and deepen the bonds between the participating parties. Some of the book’s adventures include date-night activities while others are even more romantically oriented.
No matter which scratch-off adventure you choose, you and your partner will have a ton of fun working together to complete the challenge. If you end up in the bedroom before you wrap up your chosen adventure, you should still chalk it up as a win. In fact, you may want to reward your SO with something kinkier than usual if that happens. Why not? You don’t have to worry about the kids interrupting or walking in on you two anymore, so go for it!
Spend Time Apart as a Family
Just because your kids have flown the coop, it doesn’t mean you should act like they don’t exist. Even though they’re starting an independent life, your children are still just that, the family members you’ve known since the moment they were born.
No matter where your kids moved, your can minimize your feelings of loss by spending time with them. While you’ll still be physically apart, platforms like Zoom and Skype make it a breeze for families to spend quality time together regardless of everyone’s location.
“Adventures from Scratch: Family Edition” includes more than 50 fun-filled adventures families can do together. The adventures in this book are wonderful for kids of all ages, so don’t be shy about getting the grandkids involved.
After you choose an adventure, you can tear it out of the book, copy it, and send the adventure to your kids. Set up a “playdate,” and have participants log in at the appointed hour. Once everyone is present, start the adventure. The household that finishes first should be given an award.
Along that line, you may want to get a token family trophy. As the winning household changes from one household to the next, the previous winner should send the trophy to the new champ. Possessing the trophy will likely become a hilarious bragging point as your family completes more and more challenges.
Here are some other things you can do with your family even though your children no longer live at home:
- Stream a show or movie on Netflix Party
- Troll memes together by using Instagram’s Co-Watching feature
- Play digital board games like Clue or Monopoly
- Take a cooking class
- Enjoy a digital holiday party or happy hour
- Compete in some easy, virtual Zoom games
Focus on Self-Care
Your kids leaving home isn’t an excuse to neglect your own self-care. If you’ve fallen behind with screenings and checkups, get in touch with your health care provider to schedule them.
Losing interest in things because you’ve outgrown them is one thing. Doing the same because you’re crushed by a sense of loss is quite another. Losing interest in your preferred pursuits because you’re struggling to adjust to life without the kids around may be a sign of depression.
Even if you just suspect that your mental health is on the fragile side, it’s imperative to seek help. You may want to join a support group for empty nesters. Alternatively, you might want to arrange professional help with a therapist, psychiatrist, counselor, or psychologist.
Many insurance policies will cover a set number of therapy sessions per year, provided those sessions are conducted by an approved provider. To learn what your benefits are in this context, contact your health insurance carrier.
If your carrier doesn’t offer this type of benefit, don’t let it stop you from getting the help you need. Seek out a psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor, or therapist who will work with you at an affordable rate.
Tackle New Challenges
Some people are reluctant to make radical changes as they’re raising their kids. Now that your children are on their own, it’s a great time to tackle new challenges you’ve been putting off.
Did you bypass applying for a promotion or throwing your hat in the ring for a big project because it would’ve upset your family life when your children were younger? There’s no longer any reason for you to hesitate when it comes to advancing your career or skillset.
Were you reluctant to fulfill your dream of living in another state or country earlier because you didn’t want to uproot your kids during their formative years? If so, now may be the time for you to finally make that dream a reality.
With remote work having become a permanent arrangement for a lot of employers since COVID hit the global stage, it’s easier than ever to work from anywhere in the world without having to change jobs or professions. So, what’s holding you back?
Have you always wanted to write the next best-seller, but felt guilty at the notion of investing your time in a pet project rather than spending time with your children? Now that they’re gone, look into taking a sabbatical from work if you can afford it, and devote your full attention to writing. If you can’t take off from work and it’s too early to retire, dedicate a few nights per week to your project while your SO explores his or her own interests.
Feel Your Emotions and Accept Them
Regardless of how hard you try to put forth a brave face or how much you’re looking forward to a challenge, you may find that your emotions will get the better of you on occasion as you battle empty nest syndrome. To make negative emotions fade faster, let yourself experience them without judgment and accept that they’re merely a reaction to one of life’s events.
Frequently Asked Questions
The symptoms of empty nest syndrome can include restlessness, worry, anxiety, and feelings of loneliness—even a profound sense of loss.
Empty nest syndrome is very normal! With that said, it shouldn’t be taken lightly. Address it as soon as you recognize it. Allow yourself to feel the emotions and accept them.