Being a parent is one of the largest roles and responsibilities that many of us will ever have. So it’s only natural that you might find yourself dealing with feelings of grief and loss when your grown up children leave home, such as when they leave to go to university, or to move into a new home of their own.
Though a parent’s job is never truly done, the mark of your child moving out and embarking on a journey of independence can stir up anxiety, and fears about no longer being needed. Some parents also say that they experience a deep void and a loss of purpose, while struggling to come to terms with a quieter, less occupied home.
If any of this sounds familiar to you, then the first thing to keep in mind is that your feelings are both normal and valid. There are also plenty of other parents out there who will be able to relate – so you’re never alone.
Although children growing up and leaving home can be an emotional time for all involved, it can bring with it many positives too – for example, by giving you the chance to focus on your own needs for perhaps the first time in many years. It can also be exciting to consider how you could use any extra time and space to make this new life chapter one to remember.
Below, we’ll take a closer look at some of the emotions associated with empty nest syndrome, and suggest some ways to help smooth the transition, so you can start looking forward to the future.
What is empty nest syndrome?
Empty nest syndrome is a term given to the difficult emotions that a parent can experience when their child or children leave home. It’s not a medical condition, but the problem is still very real and can have a debilitating effect. Parents who experience empty nest syndrome often find that though they might actively encourage their children to be independent and happy, letting them go can be very painful.
Some of the most common emotions associated with empty nest syndrome include:
- Sadness, anxiety, grief and/or loss.
- Regret that you weren’t more available to your children in the past when they still lived with you.
- Fear or worry about getting older because children leaving home is often a significant milestone.
- Frustration about the fact that you aren’t where you hoped you’d be at this stage in your life.
- Concern about how the dynamics of your relationship or marriage might change.
- Loneliness, because you miss the constant companionship, and being a part of your children’s daily lives.
When children leave home, it’s also not uncommon for parents to become frustrated by a loss of control. Now that your child will have to look after themselves and make their own mistakes, it can be hard to accept that you cannot always be there to protect them. This can feel scary and raise concerns about your children’s safety, and about whether they’ll be okay out on their own.
You might also have a particularly difficult time adjusting to an empty nest if your child leaves home earlier than you were expecting, if they move far away (meaning that arranging to see them is more tricky), or if you are a single parent.
While empty nest syndrome is normally characterised by certain emotions, it can also manifest physically too. For example, you might find that you have trouble sleeping – or experience nausea, or a loss of appetite.
However you feel after your child leaves home is perfectly valid, but it’s important that you take steps to avoid becoming overwhelmed by difficult emotions, or risk becoming depressed.
6 tips for coping with empty nest syndrome
1. Accept how you feel
Often, the first step in easing feelings associated with empty nest syndrome is to acknowledge and accept how you feel. As with many tough transitions or obstacles in life, it can sometimes feel easier and more manageable to adopt a ‘stiff upper lip’ mentality, and to try and brush your feelings under the carpet, so that you don’t have to face them. But many times, this can simply prolong difficult emotions, and prevent you from moving forward.
Usually, it is only when you begin to accept your emotions and allow yourself to feel them, that you can start work through them, and move past them. Professor of Psychology, Noam Shpancer sums this up nicely in his article on emotional acceptance. He says…
“Swimmers who are caught in an undertow and feel themselves being dragged out to sea often panic and begin to swim against the current with all their might. Often, they fatigue, cramp and drown. To survive, such a swimmer should do the opposite—let go. Let the current take him out to sea. Within a few hundred yards the current will weaken and the swimmer can swim around and back to shore. The same with a powerful emotion: pushing against it is futile and possibly dangerous. But if you accept the emotion, it will run its course while allowing you to run yours.”
If you’re struggling to come to terms with the fact that your children have left home, then it’s important to remember that it’s normal to feel sad, and that it won’t last forever. There will always be a brighter day, and a time when things don’t feel quite so raw.
2. Reconnect with yourself
Parenting, although fulfilling and rewarding, can take up a lot of time and energy. So, over the years you might put some of your own needs, wants and goals to one side – perhaps unconsciously. You might also have become adjusted to seeing yourself only as a parent, rather than an individual too.
For this reason, it can help to try and look at your children leaving home as an opportunity to focus more on yourself, and to see this new phase of life as your time. It might be a while since you’ve asked yourself questions such, as: what am I really passionate about? Am I happy? What are my goals and ambitions? Or, what really makes me tick?
Maybe there’s a hobby on an interest that you haven’t tapped into since before you had children that you’d love to get involved with again – and having extra space in your home can often make that much easier. For instance, if you’d love to start drawing or painting, then perhaps you could convert a spare room into a quiet space for you to explore your talent. Or, if you don’t have a pastime that you want to reignite again, then you could always try out some new ones – for example, you could learn a language, start a blog, or take up photography.
When it comes to reconnecting with yourself and discovering more about who you are, or who you want to be during this next phase of your life, there’s also a lot of power in taking up a solo pursuit. Finding something you love and that you’re happy to do alone will allow you to be yourself, set your own itinerary, and be free from the expectations of others – all of which go a long way in helping to strengthen the relationship that you have with yourself. If you’re keen to discover some new interests, you might find it useful to have a look at the learning, travel and food and drink sections of our website.
Now could also be a good time to really invest in your health and fitness – something that many of us let slide when we’re caring for others. The healthy body section of our website has lots of suggestions on ways that you could do this; such as finding creative ways to get fit and have fun, as well as ways to boost your immune system.
It’s normal to feel somewhat lost after your children leave home; especially if you strongly identify with your role as a parent – as you might find it challenging to see yourself filling any other roles. However, try to remember that your role as a parent will always exist; you will now just have more time to explore other interests and passions, and to learn more about who you are as an individual. Our article; 10 practices for self-exploration has plenty of tips and advice on how to get started on your self-discovery journey.
3. Find new challenges and establish new goals
Another effective way to cope with empty nest syndrome is to give yourself some specific challenges or goals to work towards. It’s often easier to move through painful emotions if we can look towards a brighter future, and feel hopeful about what’s ahead.
Part of reconnecting with yourself after your children leave home involves recognising what your goals are, and working out how you can get there. Goals and ambitions are what challenge us, give us purpose, and reward us with feelings of satisfaction and achievement. While parents are almost always proud supporters of their children’s ambitions and accomplishments, it’s important to remember that you’re entitled to have your own goals too.
These goals could be anything at all from making a career change, to learning and developing some new skills, through to planning an adventure. If you’re struggling to accept that you have no one to care for at home anymore, then perhaps you could channel this by finding new ways to help others, such as through volunteering.
If you’d like some additional ideas for ways you could challenge yourself or develop a fresh sense of purpose, then you might like to read our articles; 18 ways to step outside of your comfort zone and 5 ways to find meaning and purpose in your life. You can also create a tangible reminder of your goals and achievements by putting together a vision board: our article here will explain more about why vision boards are so powerful, and how you can get started with yours.
4. Strengthen your relationships, or build new ones
When some of your time and attention is shifted away from your children after they’ve moved out, you will often be given new opportunities to strengthen your relationships with others, or to build new ones. This could be relationships with friends and/or with your partner.
It’s possible that you might feel as though you need to get to know your partner all over again once your kids have flown the nest – perhaps because you’ve both forgotten what it’s like to be truly alone together. Whilst this can be daunting, it can also be exciting. Setting aside time for date nights is a great way to reconnect with one another, as is opening about the emotions that you each might be experiencing now that you’re in an empty nest. If you’re in need of some ideas about how to make the most of this extra time together, then why not have a look at these 30 indoor date night ideas from Good Housekeeping?
You might also have friends that you haven’t caught up with in a while, or don’t see as often as you’d like, in which case, now could be the perfect time to get together. Perhaps you could even arrange a weekly or monthly meet up with a group of friends, so that you always have something to look forward to. You might find that some of your friends have experience with empty nest syndrome, and can offer you some tips and advice.
Alternatively, if you’d like to build some new friendships, then there are plenty of ways you can do this too, from downloading friendship apps, to joining Facebook groups, through to getting involved in clubs and classes. The Rest Less community forum is also a great place to meet friendly, like-minded people. For more ideas about how to make new friends, you could consider reading our article, 7 ways to meet new people in the current climate.
5. Work out a way to stay connected with your kids that works for you both
When your children leave home, the temptation might be to text, call or visit them whenever you feel that you miss them (which could be all the time!). While this might feel like the natural thing to do, it can be a good idea to resist the urge to get in touch with your children too much, as both of you will need some space to come to terms with, and adjust to, your new circumstances.
Ultimately, you will need to get comfortable with your child not living at home with you anymore and having a separate life, and they will need time to grow into their new found independence.
However, it’s also important to establish a means of communication that allows you to feel connected, and maintain a close relationship without overstepping boundaries.
It’s worth having an open conversation with your child about what these are, and about what the most convenient times to keep in touch are. For instance, perhaps you could arrange a weekly dinner, glass of wine or video call together to catch up. Or maybe you could agree to call one another every few days. Every parent-child relationship is different, so it’s about finding what works best for yours.
6. Take some deep breaths and know that it’s okay to let go
At times, you might find that the idea of your child preparing to leave home, or having left home, becomes too much – leaving you feeling overwhelmed, anxious or panicked. When this happens, it can be helpful to have some coping mechanisms in place to help you refocus your thoughts, and see a way forward. Many people find that deep breathing techniques can help when they’re feeling particularly stressed or anxious, as can mindfulness; which involves bringing your attention back to the present moment.
You can also help to rationalise and challenge negative thoughts – such as worries about whether your child will be able to cope living alone – by reframing them. For example, if you find yourself thinking, “What if [name] will struggle without me doing X, Y and Z for them?”, then, you could challenge this by asking, “What if [name] has a fantastic time, learns to become fully independent, and in turn, gains access to exciting new opportunities?”
Challenging negative thoughts can be tough at first, but it’s a skill that can be learnt with some practice – and it has the potential to alleviate a lot of worry. If you’d be interested in learning more about this, then you might want to read our article, How to learn the skill of optimism.
There are also times when you might feel that letting go of your child feels all too unnatural, goes against all your instincts, and is making you feel guilty as a result. While this is normal, it’s important to try to remind yourself that the fact that you’ve raised your children to a point where they feel ready to step out into the world and live independently, is generally very positive. It’s okay to take a step back, to let them make their own decisions and mistakes, and to trust that they will come and find you when they need you.
Is it possible to struggle with feelings associated with empty nest syndrome even if you haven’t had children?
The short answer to this question is yes. Sometimes people who haven’t had children can still reach a stage in life where they can feel sad or regretful that they never started a family – especially if people around them are welcoming grandchildren. On the other hand, there are also people in their 50s, 60s and beyond who never had children, but are content and happy with their life the way it is. It’s also possible to struggle with feelings associated with empty nest syndrome, such as grief and loss, for many years after a child has died. So everyone’s story and experience will be different.
However, one particular challenge that people who haven’t had children (or who have lost children) say they often face, is being asked to explain to others why they don’t have children. If this sounds familiar, then it’s important to remember that it’s completely up to you how much or how little information you choose to share with someone – and if it’s not something that you want to talk about at all, then it’s your right not to. For tips on handling or responding to requests for information about why you don’t have children, you might find it useful to read this article from LifeHacker.
A final note…
Preparing to say goodbye to your children as they get ready to leave for home can be very painful, as can coping with the aftermath. It’s completely normal to experience feelings of anxiety, grief and/or loss, and to wonder if you’ll ever be able to stop missing them. However, it’s important to explore ways to manage your emotions if you want to prevent them from overwhelming you.
When children leave home, they’ll often miss their parents – but will be excited to begin a new life chapter. So, it can help to try and view your own experience in the same way: as an opportunity to grow, develop and focus on your own wants and needs. This way, when you come back together you will have lots to catch up on and celebrate with one another. Because just as you want to know that your kids are safe, happy and healthy – they’ll want to know the same about you too.
While the dynamic of your relationship might change once you’re no longer living together, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and your bond could go from strength to strength. Treasuring quality time, having new experiences to share, and feeling more grateful for one another, are just a few of the silver linings that can come with an empty nest…