Here’s What You Need To Know About Coping With Empty Nest Syndrome

You devoted many years to diapering and feeding and educating your children. You worked tirelessly to make sure that they stayed safe and healthy.

Parenting undoubtedly became an identity, a role that changed you indefinitely. It’s one of the most challenging and rewarding commitments a person can make in this lifetime.

And now the last baby has left home (or is getting ready to go), you might be left feeling…unsettled. You might also be sad, scared, and maybe even a bit hollowed. Even if you once looked forward to this time (or tried your best to prepare yourself for it), coping with empty nest syndrome can feel daunting.

You’re undoubtedly about to face a significant change. Life is moving in a different direction, so let’s discuss how you can navigate it gracefully.

Signs and Symptoms of Empty Nest Syndrome

Empty nest syndrome can affect everyone differently. Furthermore, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all way to feel about your children leaving home. All feelings are valid, and it’s important to remember that any transition can trigger stress.

With that in mind, you might be struggling with your new empty nest if you:

  • believe that life is now empty or meaningless.
  • feel increasingly anxious or frustrated over your children’s autonomy.
  • struggle with guilt over not being available enough as a parent.
  • find yourself wanting to control aspects of your child’s life.
  • feel increasingly scared about aging or mortality.
  • continuously long or ache for your child’s younger years.
  • have increased marital stress.

Keep in mind that most parents struggle with some of these symptoms after their children leave home.  There isn’t anything wrong with how you feel, and it’s completely normal to experience sadness or anticipatory grief for your changing dynamic.

But if the symptoms persist or worsen over time, it can have a detrimental effect on your well-being. It can also create problems in your relationship with your children.

What Complicates Empty Nest Syndrome?

Most parents experience some ambivalence about their child leaving the family home. But some risk factors may increase your likelihood to struggle with empty nest-related depression or anxiety.

Juggling Other Midlife Stressors

Empty nest often accompanies midlife, a phase that consists of many developmental, physical, and emotional changes.  Midlife is a diverse stage that spans from about 40-65 and may include other stressors like:

  • career changes or retirement.
  • relocation.
  • medical conditions.
  • caregiving aging parents.
  • divorce.
  • financial stress.

Any of these transitions already feel stressful, and too much change at the same time can make things feel chaotic and confusing.

Being a Stay-At-Home Parent

Working parents often face empty nest uncertainty, but stay-at-home parents may face a harder time reclaiming their new identities. In homes with multiple children, some parents may have devoted anywhere from 18-30+ years exclusively raising their little ones.

They may feel they “don’t know who they are” without their kids, and they might also believe that their most important job is now complete. This reality can leave parents feeling restless and existentially angsty.

Having a Rocky Marriage

The cliche is often true: many parents do, in fact, stay together for the sake of the children. Research shows that over 20% of couples report sticking it out for that very reason. So, what happens when the last one leaves home?

Many people find it challenging to reconnect with their spouses after spending so much time in parenting mode. They may feel bored or unsettled in their marriage. They might not really know how to just spend quality time together.

Furthermore, they might also wonder if there’s more out there, and this questioning can complicate empty nest syndrome.

Mental Health Issues

Issues like depression or anxiety might compound empty nest complications. Some people find their mental health worsens- without their children at home, they feel more conscious of these challenges.

If you lack healthy coping skills, you might turn to harmful strategies to reduce stress. For instance, you may start overeating or drinking heavily. Or, you might find yourself zoning out in front of the TV or compulsively online shopping.

Relationship Stressors with Your Children

If you constantly feel like you’re battling with your kids, their leaving can still result in difficulties. You may experience guilt or sadness for the relationship you don’t have. You might also feel worried that they won’t stay in touch.

Unexpected/Uncertain Empty Nest

There is no “normal” when it comes to adulthood. Some children leave home abruptly. They may move in with a friend at a moment’s notice, or they take a job across the country.

Other times, the empty nest can feel somewhat more ambiguous. Research shows that 52% of young adults live with their parents. This number grew sharply during COVID-19, with many people moving back home to save money.

This lack of a permanent departure can leave parents feeling confused and anxious.

Financial Dependence

Many parents still support their adult children years after leaving home. There is nothing wrong with helping your kids out, but it can cause complications if you:

  • start wanting to control their income or expenses.
  • feel resentful at them asking for money.
  • don’t know how to say no to their requests.
  • give them money when you cannot financially afford to so.
  • believe your child is “mooching” off of you instead of fostering their own self-efficacy.

Tips for Coping with Empty Nest Syndrome

Sadness, fear, and restlessness are normal feelings people experience after any significant change. Here are some tips to help you cope with this discomfort.

Spend Time Reconnecting With Yourself

Many people lose some of their identities when they become parents. Their lives mesh with their children’s, and they forgo their own passions as a result.

But who were you before you became mom or dad? And what needs, dreams, or bucket-list goals did you put on the backburner once having children?

You now have the opportunity to rediscover yourself. What do you want to do with this free time? What things have you really wanted to try?

If you’re drawing blanks, spend some time journaling or crafting a vision board. Additionally, commit to spending some time alone- being with yourself is the best way to know yourself, and you need that insight to help structure the way you want to live your life.

Try Something Bold

Have you ever wanted to learn a new language? Or try scuba-diving? Or simply take a spontaneous vacation without planning anything in advance?

Do it. Do it now. Bonus points if you feel somewhat scared or uncertain about it.

Think about it- you’ve probably spent years cultivating independence and courage in your children. Now it’s time to apply that mentality to yourself. You’re entering a new phase of life, and taking healthy risks can supercharge your momentum.

Redefine Your Relationship With Your Children

In your eyes, they might always be your babies. But society now deems your children as young adults, and you must respect their ages.

Educate Yourself on Their New Developmental Stage

You were eighteen once, but that doesn’t inherently make you an expert on the challenges of young adulthood.

Young adults face several developmental tasks and often change rapidly between ages 18-24. While everyone is different, here are some common milestones to expect:

  • desire for intimate, long-term relationships.
  • exploration in sexual identity.
  • increased abstract thinking about the present and future.
  • firmer sense of identity (often coupled with more exploration of self).
  • ability to understand and value multiple viewpoints.
  • development of stable and connected peer relationships.
  • greater emphasis on cultivating work experiences focused on long-term career goals.
  • increased concern for others and their well-being.
  • more stable interests and passions.

Remember that these milestones are not fixed and they do not inherently apply to every young adult. Instead, they represent more general goalposts that often accompany people transitioning out of adolescence.

Avoid Incessant Checking

It might be tempting to check in all the time (or check their Facebook or Instagram constantly), but this habit can stunt your child’s growth. It can also increase your own anxiety levels.

On the one hand, constant attention may result in your child feeling irritated that you want to know every detail.  On the other hand, they may grow to depend on you for solving their every last problem. Neither of these scenarios is particularly optimal.

Hovering over your children and trying to make decisions for them may cause them to resent you. Additionally, if they fear your judgment, they might withhold or lie about important information. This pattern can result in a tumultuous dynamic, and it can compromise your relationship.

Set Communication Schedules

Let them know it’s important that you feel connected to them. But avoid guilt-tripping or making passive-aggressive comments about how much you miss them- you risk pushing them away entirely.

Instead, focus on creating a sense of structure. Maybe you commit to having dinner together once a month. Or you lock in a scheduled video chat every week.

As a parent, it’s important for you to respect their boundaries with time. Your child is busy and developing new interests and relationships- they need to know you’re there whenever they need, but that you won’t make them feel bad for embracing their freedom.

Stay Curious About Their Growth

Be open-minded and interested in their new life.

Try to ask questions without assuming or probing for additional details. If you have concerns about a specific issue, express them clearly, but respectfully.

Remember, they deserve independence and respect for their autonomy- giving them this freedom motivates them to be self-sufficient.

Ask if They Want Support or Advice

It may seem like a simple question, but it can transform the relationship you have with your adult child. The next time they start expressing a concern, pause before dishing out wisdom. Instead, ask if they want your support or your advice.

You might be surprised by how much they just want you to listen. Your child is learning how to solve problems on their own. But they still value your security and validation.

Determine Your Boundaries

Some adult children may expect their parents to still take care of them. This “taking care of” can include anything from scheduling doctor appointments to paying rent to coming over in the middle of the day to change a spare tire.

It can be hard to say no, but it’s important that you consider any boundaries you want to implement. For instance, how much money do you believe is appropriate to give them each week or month? Or, how comfortable do you feel making appointments for them.

Boundaries honor your personal integrity and they model a sense of consistency and maturity for your children. The may protest at first, but going back on your word may perpetuate more problems.

Strengthen Your Relationship With Your Partner

Dedicate some time to rebuilding and solidifying your relationship with your partner. You two can now date again! This can be a liberating, exciting experience.

Listen To Your Partner’s Feelings

The two of you may handle the empty nest quite differently. It’s essential to try to understand your partner’s perspective and feelings. Don’t assume your process of coping is the “right” process.

Listening can be a challenging skill, but you can work on it by:

  • spending time together talking every day without any distractions.
  • asking clarifying questions when you don’t understand something.
  • validating their emotions without trying to fix or solve them.
  • reflecting on what they said.
  • asking how you can provide support or encouragement.

Engage in Novel Experiences Together

Think about all the activities you postponed doing because you had kids. Now you have permission to do them!

Consider planning a trip together. If that’s not possible, plan out some exciting weekend excursions or date nights. Try to keep things fresh and interesting- making this a priority can create sparks in your relationship.

Consider Couples Therapy

If you are struggling with connection or intimacy, consider seeking professional support. Couples therapy can help you work through some of the difficulties associated with the empty nest. It can also teach you new strategies for communicating your needs to one another.

Remember, things don’t need to be catastrophic to reach out for help. Preventing significant issues before they arise (or right as you notice them) can be incredibly helpful in avoiding further escalation.

Affirm Yourself Often

The empty nest is a sign of success. It means you launched your children into the world. It’s an essential parenting task, and it deserves plenty of self-recognition!

If you find yourself ruminating over past parenting mistakes, try to pause and challenge your negative thoughts. Most of the time, we do the best we can with whatever circumstances we face. Of course, nobody is a perfect parent, but you probably did an amazing job.

It can be helpful to develop a meditation ritual if it’s difficult to stay present. Start by taking a few deep breaths when you feel anxious. Then, remind yourself that you have this moment and that you can make the most of it.

Take Care Of Something (or Someone) Else

If caregiving is an essential part of your identity, you may wish to maintain that part of yourself. Fortunately, there are numerous opportunities worth pursuing.

Volunteer with children: From reading at the local library to helping at a youth homeless shelter, you can make a meaningful difference in a child’s life by donating your time. Most organizations require a background check and a standing time commitment.

Foster or adopt a pet: Research shows that spending time with animals can boost your mental health and decrease loneliness. Consider looking into rescuing a pet or volunteering at a local shelter.

Make a garden: Although plants aren’t people, you will certainly feel a sense of reward watching them grow! If you’re a beginner, visit a plant nursery for guidance. A staff member can provide you with the best tips for getting started.

Make New Friends

If you’re the first in your friend group to experience the empty nest, it might feel lonely. You may find yourself feeling resentful or jealous of your friends and their younger children.

If this issue arises, consider expanding your support. Having like-minded people can help you feel validated and connected.

Join a Meetup: Many communities have local Meetup groups where people with similar interests get together. Commit to attend a few different events and try to connect with at least 1-2 people at each one. It may take some time to find the right friendship, but it’s often worth the effort.

Volunteer: Volunteering has numerous benefits, and it’s a great way to meet new people. It also allows you to feel more connected with your local community, which boosts other prosocial effects.

Seek Professional Support

Coping with empty nest syndrome can feel daunting. However, you don’t need to navigate this challenging period on your own. Therapy offers a supportive space to adapt and thrive with your new reality.

Contact me today to get started.


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