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Empty Nest Syndrome

What is the empty nest syndrome?

Empty nest syndrome refers to the grief that many parents feel when their children move away from home. Empty nest syndrome can affect both parents, but mothers seem to be most often affected. Many mothers may have dedicated 20 years or more of their lives to bringing up their children. Motherhood is their primary role. Once the last child moves out, the mother may feel that her most important job is finished. She may feel worthless, disoriented, and unsure of what meaning her future may hold.

Who is most at risk?

People who suffer the most from empty nest syndrome tend to have things in common, including:

  • They see change as stressful, rather than as challenging or refreshing.
  • They found moving away from home a difficult and emotional experience.
  • Their marriage is unstable or unsatisfactory.
  • Experiences such as sending their children off to school were emotional and painful.
  • They rely on their parental roles for self-identity rather than having a strong sense of self-worth.
  • They are full-time parents who do not work outside the home.
  • They worry that their children aren't ready to take on adult responsibilities.

What can I expect?

For parents, this can be a time of strong feelings. Some experience joy, fulfillment, and relief. Others feel loneliness and anxiety, or a mixture of both good and bad feelings. Some couples enter a second honeymoon period. Single parents can now date without worrying about what their children think. Parents are free to focus on their own financial, emotional, and social needs.

For some parents, this time is marked by the pain of loss and the anxiety of letting go. They may find themselves asking: "What is my purpose in life?" "My work is done. Who needs me?" Or they may feel bitter: "Look what all my hard work has gotten me now."

Single parents may have an even harder time than couples. They may have to reinvent almost every aspect of their lives and may feel more alone than ever before.

If a parent and child were particularly close, they may have a hard time separating emotionally. If you find that all you think and talk about are your children, you may be hurting more than you realize. Remember that parents and children need to develop their own lives.

Being too distant can also present problems. You may be pushing your children away emotionally, perhaps because you are angry or resentful that they want to leave you. This can lead to lasting feelings of bitterness and anger.

You may feel guilty for not having spent more time with your children when they were home, and this guilt may stop you from paying attention to your own needs.

How can I take care of myself?

Change itself — whether moving, marriage, having children, or letting children go — is very hard, and it is normal to be confused and upset. Most parents adapt in 6 to 12 months. You can make things easier by doing some of the following:

  • Don't run from the problem. Pretending nothing has changed will harm you in the long run.
  • If you feel very alone, get a support network. If your children know you have someone, they can relax, and you'll feel better, too.
  • Talk to your spouse about your feelings. You may find you share the same emotions.
  • Be clear with adult children that they are free to make their own way in life.
  • Encourage your children to maintain relationships with each other. Siblings can be great support for each other once they have left home.
  • Focus on the successes and strengths of your children.
  • Recognize that they are adults now and it is up to them to let you know if they need you.
  • Work to establish a more adult rapport with your children. Seeing them as adults will help you treat them as adults.
  • Do a life inventory. Think of all the things you have been waiting to do. Really think through what you want to happen in the next 10 to 20 years. Remember, when you had children you planned ahead 20 years, so plan now for the next 20.
  • If you have a lot of negative thoughts about yourself ("I did a bad job as a parent." "I'm just going to grow old and die alone." "No one needs me anymore."), try to change these thoughts. Ask people who know you well and you will find out these thoughts are not true.

When might I need professional help?

While this is a normally difficult time, there are some warning signs that you may need help from a professional. You may need help if:

  • You just don't feel able to do the things you used to do regularly, like work and socialize.
  • There is a significant change in your sleep cycle or in how much you eat or weigh.
  • Several months later you are still very unhappy, anxious, or upset or you feel you cannot deal with the change.
  • You and your spouse are becoming more distant and not addressing what it means to be living without children at home.
Written by Daniel Rosen, C.S.W.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-01-28
Last reviewed: 2010-09-29
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2011 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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