Your last, or only, child has decided to leave the nest. Watching your son or daughter grow up and move out comes with mixed emotions that won’t go away overnight, but there are plenty of ways you can take care of your emotional health during this difficult transition. This guide will help you understand empty nest syndrome and offer suggestions on how to cope with your newly-quiet home.
What is empty nest syndrome?
Empty nest syndrome occurs when parents experience feelings of sadness and loss as their last child leaves home. Though many parents encourage and support their children in becoming independent, watching them leave is nonetheless painful. You might wake up to a shockingly quiet house, no longer filled with children who need your attention. There is plenty to miss — being involved in their daily lives, the constant sound of people around and all the time you spent taking care of their needs. Many parents feel depressed, confused and a deep sense of purposelessness when they no longer have a child’s needs taking up so much of their time.
On top of being plagued by these powerful emotions, you might also be concerned about your child’s safety out there in the world alone. You may even doubt that they’ll be able to take care of themselves without you there to guide them. This transition can be an especially big struggle if your last child leaves the nest sooner than you hoped. If you only have one child or see your main purpose in life as being a parent, you might have a significantly harder time adjusting to an empty nest.
What’s the impact of empty nest syndrome?
In the past, people thought that empty nest syndrome, if not dealt with, would lead to depression, substance abuse, identity crisis and marriage/relationship issues. This can still be true.
Those at the greatest risk of experiencing empty nest symptoms are:
- People with a history of struggling with separation and change.
- Full-time parents.
- People dealing with health issues, retirement and aging parents of their own.
- Parents who believe their child is not prepared to leave home.
The good news is that while those issues are a concern, they aren’t a concern for everyone. For most, symptoms of empty nest syndrome decrease over time and can be prevented, mitigated or treated.
Recent studies suggest that an empty nest might actually enhance lives by improving relationships and boosting freedom — both yours and your child’s. After an initial period of loss, or manageable fluctuations of sadness, many empty nesters saw a reduction in work stress and family conflicts. When your last child leaves home, yes, it can be sad, but it can also be a new opportunity to reconnect with your partner, your friends and your life. Without the added stress of kids at home, you have more time to devote to your marriage, hobbies and yourself. One of the best ways to cope healthily with an empty nest is to be prepared.
How can I get ready for an empty nest?
- Plan Ahead
- Get Reacquainted with Your Partner
- Dream Big
- Plan and Dream, But Avoid Big Changes
- Connect with other Empty Nesters
- Make a list of the roles you currently fill that require the bulk of your time and energy. Some examples include: partner, parent, friend, family member, pet owner, job title and volunteer roles. Also, if you are really into a sport or activity — you regularly train for and run marathons or play on a recreational softball league — include those, too. Then, go through your list and rank them by importance, first in responsibility and second in time.
- Determine which roles you want to expand, and come up with ideas for how to do it. For instance, if you have a spouse or partner, you could expand that role by trying to discover new mutual interests that allow you to spend more time together. If you are single, maybe with the final child out of the house, you finally have the time to enter the dating world.
- Make a list of things you always wanted to try, adventures you always wanted to have, and hobbies you set aside long ago for parenthood. Check out activities at community colleges that help you connect to people with similar interests, or visit websites like Meetup.com to find group activities. If you have trouble getting started, don’t worry. Parenting has been your primary extracurricular activity for decades. It’s only natural to feel a bit rusty. Flip through old photos and connect with old friends to rekindle interests you had before your children entered your life.
- Start a project. While it’s far too soon to think about turning your child’s old room into a home office, there are plenty of other things that you can do around the house to help you adjust to the new dynamic. Declutter and organize nooks and catch-alls that have piled up over the years. This doubles as an accomplishment and a way to renew the energy you feel in your home. Reorganizing and tossing old clutter may motivate you to make the home upgrades that you’ve always wanted or inspire projects that transition well as you and your family enter new stages of life.
The benefit here is two-fold — you can plan for your first few weeks without a child at home, and you can help your child be better prepared for life on his or her own. We’re all in different places when we take that first step out. Some young adults have never done their own laundry, while others have been responsible for paying their bills on time. Assess your child’s self-sufficiency and what skills they need to learn to land on their feet. Then, plan for yourself.
Take a vacation, remodel your kitchen, start a part-time job or a new class. Take stock of the free time you’ll now have, and find a way to fill at least a portion of it up right away.
You’ve spent the last 18 years, at least, as mom and dad, and now you get to be husband and wife again. Take a staycation or second honeymoon where you can rekindle your commitment to each other in your newly-empty home. Your relationship is yours again. Celebrate together!
Make a list of things you always wanted to do but never had the time or resources for because of your children. Maybe it’s time to consider a whole a new career or look into going back to college and getting a degree. Maybe a road trip to national parks or the country’s biggest cities is on your list. Never been abroad? Get your passport ready and take the plunge. Open the doors and see what adventures await.
It’s OK to let your imagination run wild, but try not to make any big moves just yet. Vacations aside, take time to adjust instead of immediately throwing your house on the market. It can take up to two years to fully adjust to an empty nest, so indulge with caution. Plus, you’ll want to be available in case that young adult turns out to be a boomerang child, and within a few months flies back into the nest.
You aren’t the first and only person to go through empty nest syndrome. There are thousands of other people in your community who are going through a similar experience. Reach out to them through social media, community centers, church, work and networking websites. Think about your child’s friends; their parents are likely having empty nest feelings too. Reach out — it can help you and them.
What do I do when the nest is finally empty?
In an ideal world, you wouldn’t wait until your child leaves home to think about how this will impact you. The sooner you create a plan to get ahead of these emotions, the better off you will be when your child leaves home. Starting to prepare when your children are still young isn’t just about preparing you — it’s also about gradually making sure the departure will be easier and exciting for everyone.
Even still, you can only plan and prepare so much. What happens when you wake up at 2 a.m. in cold sweats because you no longer know your purpose in life? Here are some basic strategies to use to prepare and maintain emotional health and stability when dealing with an empty nest:
Most importantly, try to get active before your child moves out so that your calendar, and life, is full before they leave. It’s only natural to feel a sense of loss when your last child moves out, so don’t worry if you don’t feel excited or overjoyed at first. You’ll get there in your own time. Try to get involved in new activities and interests that allow you to focus on your emotional adjustment and reduce some of the emptiness you feel, both in your home and your heart.