When your child grows up and leaves home, either to go off to college or make it in the real world, you probably feel a range of emotions: excitement about the new possibilities your life hold, satisfaction at having done a good job parenting and maybe a little trepidation about your child’s well-being and what the future holds for her. You also might feel a little — or a lot — grief or sadness. This is called empty nest syndrome.
How old are empty nesters?
There’s no set age at which empty nest syndrome occurs — it happens when your children grow up and leave home. Today, that usually means Baby Boomers and the oldest Gen Xers, who are now in their early 50s.
However, empty nest syndrome may be becoming less common as more adult children return home or never leave. Pew Research Center found that more and more adults ages 25-35 are still living within their parents — 15% in 2016.
Can empty nest syndrome cause anxiety?
Anxiety about yourself and your children is a normal symptom of empty nest syndrome. We’ll delve into what to do about it below.
5 signs of empty nest syndrome and tips for coping
1. Sadness or depression.
The hallmark of empty nest syndrome is feeling sad or even depressed. If you’re crying more than normal and feeling generally down in the dumps, don’t despair. This is a common symptom and one you can work through.
Acknowledge your feelings rather than trying to hold them in or suppress them. Talk to friends, your partner and loved ones — even your child — about how you're feeling. If you feel overwhelmed by your sense of loss — and it is a loss — consider seeking the help of a mental health professional.
2. Loss of meaning or lack of purpose.
Remember when you took your kids to school every day and made them dinner? Now that they’ve left home, you may wonder what to do with your time and feel like you’re lacking any kind of direction. Being a parent is no longer your primary role.
It’s difficult to replace the hole your child left by, well, leaving, but now is a great time to reassess your goals and take up new hobbies. Sign up for a class or join a Meetup group. This is the perfect time to think about what you want to do for a change.
3. Excessive worry over your child.
It’s always normal to worry about your child. It’s basically your job. But when she leaves home for good. You might begin to spiral and even feel anxious in general.
Establish routine check-ins with your child to help manage your anxiety about her wellbeing. It doesn’t have to be a full-fledged phonecall; even just a text once or twice a week can help you relax and relinquish some control. You need to accept that your child is an adult now and try not to become overbearing, but you can still request that she lets you know she’s alive and doing well every once in a while.
4. Marital conflict.
If you have a partner, you might be feeling that you’re not as close as you once were since your child left. You might be arguing more frequently or simply not connecting at all. Your child’s absence can impact your relationship — and even potentially lead to divorce in some cases.
Communication can be helpful. Chances are, your partner is going through the stages of empty nest syndrome himself or herself, too, and supporting each other, talking through your struggles together and bonding over missing your child can provide that missing link. If you’re really struggling to reconnect, consider couples therapy. This works best if you go early, before your problems escalate such that the relationship is beyond repair.
5. Loneliness and isolation.
Another common symptom of empty nest syndrome is feeling lonely and isolated. This shouldn’t come as a surprise — after all, a person with whom you likely spent considerable time is out of the house. This can be especially true if you’re a single parent and it was just the two of you for a while, but it can also affect you if you have a partner and other children.
Reconnect with the other people in your life. If you have a spouse or partner, make some time for just the two of you to go out to dinner or even take a much-needed vacation. Spend time with friends and other family members, too: get a drink, go to the movies or have a girls night. You might just talk on the phone with a friend or connect with an old college roommate.
There’s no rule that says you can’t lean on your child, too. As per #3, it’s fine to check in once in a while. Just be sure to give her her space as she adjusts to this new life chapter.
It’s common and normal to feel sad, overwhelmed and like you have no control when a child leaves. Of course, you know this is ultimately a good thing for your child and her development and is a testament to your parenting skills that she’s ready to make this leap, but it’s also bittersweet. There are times when you might feel like you wish your child could be there — and don’t forget, you will see her again, just not as frequently.
Remember that you don’t have to do this alone. Lean on your partner, friends and other family members and share your feelings. It’s an important part of accepting what’s happening and moving forward. If you find that empty nest syndrome is affecting your life to an overwhelming degree, seek the help of a mental help professional, who can provide strategies for coping with the transition phase. Don’t be embarrassed if you need this support — this, too, is normal and for some an essential part of moving on.