Your youngest just moved into her first apartment and suddenly your house is very, very quiet. As your pride and excitement and worry for your child wear off, what remains?
For many people, the mixed emotions that arise when their children move out are known as “empty nest syndrome.” Generally described as a feeling of grief and loneliness that follows child-rearing, empty nest syndrome can also include deep anxiety over children’s safety and ability to take care of themselves in their new environment.
According to Carilion Clinic internist and psychiatrist Suzanna Jamison, M.D., F.A.C.P., it can also include relief and a sense of freedom.
“Responses are very individualized,” she said. “People who have meaningful pursuits in their lives and a good support network of friends tend to do better managing the transition.”
Empty Nest Syndrome vs. Depression
Empty nest syndrome is not a clinical diagnosis, but it can mimic depression in some ways.
“Clinical depression is characterized by a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest, together with loss of functioning,” said Dr. Jamison. “Depression may have many life event triggers, some of them interpersonal relationships.”
Empty nest syndrome, in contrast, has a single specific trigger—children leaving the home—and is defined by a transition period. It may or may not be accompanied by loss of function, and in fact may result in improved functioning in some areas, as parents immerse themselves in work or leisurely pursuits.
For some couples, the empty nest is an opportunity to reinvigorate their relationship. The American Psychological Association reports that couples who successfully launch their adult children from the home experience increased marital satisfaction.
Dr. Jamison recommends several strategies for parents who find the adjustment to the empty nest challenging:
1. Maintain contact with your children. Phone calls, text messages, Skype or FaceTime and snail-mail letters help keep parents and adult children connected. But do not take it personally when they seem too busy and distracted to connect.
“Adult children are working on their own developmental tasks—forging work and romantic relationships and immersing themselves in studies or their occupation,” said Dr. Jamison.
2. Take care of yourself. Take time now to attend to needs that were not a priority when your children were at home. Re-establish healthy eating, sleeping and exercising habits, and learn new relaxation techniques such as yoga, Qi Gong or progressive muscle relaxation.
3. Get involved. Immerse yourself in new hobbies, church activities, volunteering or a reassessment of career goals. Dr. Jamison points out that getting involved can have practical as well as emotional benefits.
“If parents are dependent on adult children for income or chores, it will help to expand social networks—connecting with a church or networking with other parents who can exchange helpful services—to get these needs met,” she said.
4. Get to know your partner. Empty-nesters who are in relationships usually find that they can now spend their newly discovered extra time and energy on strengthening their bond or working out relationship problems.
“For both couples and single parents, rejuvenating friendships and meeting new people though productive, spiritual or leisure activities can be very satisfying,” said Dr. Jamison.
When to Seek Support
Dr. Jamison recommends that parents reach out to their health care provider as needed, especially:
- If these strategies are not helpful
- If the empty nest is causing problems in the parents' relationship
- If the parent is experiencing other life changes, such as menopause
- If the parent develops symptoms of depression
While empty nest syndrome is not depression, the negative feelings associated with it can persist or develop into depressive symptoms such as:
- Lack of motivation
- Persistent sadness
- Sleep or appetite changes
- Suicidal thoughts
If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, please talk to your health care provider right away. If you are coping with chronic illness ask your provider about community resources that can help you in your child's absence.
Overall, the transition might be hard for you and your child at first, but after some time you will find that a wonderful new chapter is opening up for both of you.