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Empty Nest Syndrome: Adjusting After Your Children Leave Home

As a parent, you face times when dealing with your kids can be a challenge while they’re living at home. 

Maybe your baby isn’t sleeping through the night, so you haven’t felt rested in months. Your toddler might pull off her socks as fast as you can put them on. Or your 8-year-old keeps sneaking toys and candy into your cart at Target. You think if you could just get a few minutes to yourself, you could regroup and deal with the demands of parenting.

Then it happens. And you don’t just have a few minutes to yourself. Your kids are out of the house and your active, hands-on parenting days are over. 

Sure, you see your grown children sometimes, and you’re in touch with phone calls and texts. But you’re not having dinner together every day, helping them with their homework or driving their carpools. 

After 18 or more years of living with someone, you can have feelings of sadness or loss when they leave. Empty nest syndrome is not a clinical diagnosis, but it’s a common and normal reaction to this major life change. “Empty nest syndrome refers to the grief a parent experiences when their child or children move out of the home,” said Denise Black, a social worker and associate director of care coordination with Banner Health.

The change in dynamic is a big one, and emotions are expected to follow. No matter how difficult it may be, try to accept these feelings rather than fight them — they won’t last forever. And although you might miss having your kids as a part of your everyday life, they will always be your kids.

The symptoms of empty nest syndrome 

When your children leave, it’s important to watch for signs of empty nest syndrome. That way, you can spot the thoughts and feelings you’re having about the changes in your life and the ways you’re coping. 

You might feel sad, lonely or anxious, or have other symptoms such as difficulty sleeping, changes in your appetite, irritability, fatigue or trouble concentrating. It may also seem like you don’t have control or you’ve lost your purpose. “Part of this experience is grieving the loss of your lifestyle and the relationships that were part of your identity,” Black said.

You might also feel:

  • Confused about your new role in your children's lives and how to define yourself.
  • Regret about things you did or didn't do while your children were growing up. 
  • Fear of the future, for yourself and your children. 
  • Anger at your children for leaving. 

And you may feel a mix of emotions. For example, you might feel relieved when a child moves out but guilty that you feel that way. 

It is important to allow yourself to feel all of your emotions, even the difficult ones. Be honest with yourself and don’t judge your feelings. There is no right or wrong way to experience empty nest syndrome. 

For most people, empty nest syndrome is temporary. Over time, you’ll adjust to the changes in your life. And some of the changes are positive — you have more time, freedom and flexibility, for example.

Here are some strategies that can help you cope with empty nest syndrome. 

Reconnect with your partner 

If you’re sharing this transition with a partner after years where your children needed a lot of your time, attention and energy, now you can focus on your relationship and enjoy each other’s company. Look at it as an opportunity to reconnect.

You may want to:

  • Go out on date nights. 
  • Take weekend trips and vacations together. 
  • Get involved in shared activities, like hobbies, sports or volunteering. 
  • Make time for regular communication, both verbally and physically. 
  • Support each other's individual needs and goals.

Rediscover yourself 

Once your children are no longer living with you, you may have more free time for your interests and goals. It could be a good time to:

  • Pursue hobbies and interests you used to enjoy, or you’ve been putting off. 
  • Take classes to learn new skills. 
  • Travel to new places. 
  • Start a new project or business. 
  • Spend time with friends and family who share your interests. 

Strengthen social connections 

As your children get older and move out, you may not interact with them in the same way. And you no longer have as much contact with their friends or their friends’ parents. 

Make an effort to reach out to people and schedule activities:

  • Spend time with your friends and family.
  • Get involved in social groups or clubs. 
  • Volunteer with a cause you care about. 
  • Attend religious or spiritual services. 
  • Take classes or workshops with other people. 
  • Join a sports team or fitness class. 

Set new goals 

Empty nest syndrome can be a time to redefine yourself and your purpose. With more time to yourself, you can think about what you would like to achieve in the next chapter of your life:

  • Set personal goals, such as losing weight, getting in shape or learning a new language. 
  • Set professional goals like getting a promotion, starting your own business or retiring early. 
  • Set new financial goals. You may want to save more for retirement or pay off debt. 
  • Plan to travel, such as planning a weekend trip every three months or a major vacation once a year. 

Once you have thought through your goals, you can start making a plan to achieve them.

Forge a new relationship with your child

It can be hard to transition from raising a child to parenting a young adult. You want to stay involved in your child’s life without smothering them. It can feel like a balancing act. 

You’ll want to be supportive while you’re respecting your young adult’s boundaries and encouraging them to be independent. Talk to them about how often they would like to text, call or get together. 

Some kids might want to text throughout the day while others would rather schedule a video call once a week. Work together to find a communication strategy that works. Give them space but let them know you are always eager to hear about their new adventures and there to help them through any challenges.

“Make sure they know the door is always open whenever they feel like talking. Let them know they can come to you with any problem,” Black said. “But resist the urge to solve their problem or minimize their problem. Focus on listening.” 

When you spend time together, make sure you give them your undivided attention, empathizing and showing compassion. 

  • Ask them about their work, friends and hobbies. 
  • Support their decisions, even if you don’t always agree with them. 
  • If they make a bad decision, let them take responsibility for it. You can be there for support or to offer advice if they ask but let them figure it out on their own. Trust that you have raised them well, and now it is their turn to be responsible and grow.
  • Tell your child how much they mean to you — children never outgrow the need to hear “I love you” from their parents. 

Nurturing a relationship with your adult child takes time and effort. But it is worth it to have a strong, healthy bond with your child.  

Know when to seek professional help 

If you are experiencing empty nest syndrome and the steps you’re taking on your own aren’t working, it is important to seek professional help. A therapist or counselor can help you to understand your emotions, develop healthy ways to cope and adjust to your new life. 

“Empty nesters often feel sadness and loneliness. However, if you are experiencing certain symptoms, it may be time to seek professional help,” Black said.

These symptoms include:

  • Not sleeping enough or sleeping too much
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Fatigue or lack of energy
  • Lack of motivation
  • Feeling worthless or like you don’t have any purpose

The bottom line

When your children leave home, you may find it difficult to cope with empty nest syndrome. You may experience strong emotions. Reconnecting with your partner, setting new goals, making time to socialize and forging a new relationship with your adult children can help you get through this transition.

If you’re struggling with empty nest syndrome and self-care strategies aren’t working, talk to your health care provider or reach out to a Banner Health expert. Our professionals can support you during this challenging transition.

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