A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Empty nesters: How to cope with kids leaving

Everyone who has children knows that one day your kids will grow up and leave home, but how empty nesters transition can be different.

Two middle-aged women having a conversation about being empty nesters

As an empty nester, you can refocus on yourself and your relationships.

According to National Library of Medicine, the empty-nest syndrome is a psychological condition that can affect both parents, oftentimes the mother, with feelings of grief, loss, fear or difficulty adjusting when their children leave home.

“It’s not necessarily a syndrome, but it is a phase of life where that role as a parent, that dynamic and the responsibilities all change,” said Dr. Alpa Shah, psychiatrist with Marshfield Clinic Health System. “The practical physical day-to-day activities change, but also psychologically, there is a shift.”

Empty-nest syndrome was a term popularized in the 1970s when mothers were primary caregivers at home and often their identity was formed around their child or children. Today, when both parents are working, research has found that an empty nest can lead to mixed feelings more than strictly negative or positive emotions.

Signs of empty nest syndrome

Because it is not a clinical syndrome, Dr. Shah explained there are not specific signs and symptoms, and it can differ for everyone. If you find yourself stuck in that brooding, sad, grieving mode and having difficulty letting go, then it’s important to seek support.

“Some of those feelings are normal,” she said. “It’s bittersweet. But, when it starts to affect your health, sleep, relationships or occupation, counseling may be helpful.”

Tips for empty nest transition

If you find that your identity revolves around being a mother or parent, Dr. Shah recommends that you start to gradually look at who you are beyond being a parent.

“As you’re preparing for that transition, you can start to reinvent, reinvigorate and focus a little bit on yourself,” she said. “That’s not selfish.”

She encourages you to shift your focus from the loss into exploring what new opportunities are available to you.

“I hear all the time mothers say, ‘I never have time,’” Dr. Shah said. “Start thinking about that and how you nurture yourself and start carving out some time for your interests and yourself now.”

Prior to this phase of life, parents start to adjust their role as children become teens and young adults. Dr. Shah recommends that you have conversations with your child around expectations and boundaries around being parents of adult children while they are still at home. This will reduce the large shift that happens when they leave the home.

“You will always worry about your children,” she said. “When you have conversations with your child before they leave, it may ease some of that anxiety you have when they are gone.”

Dr. Shah mentioned you may want to set up a call on a specific day or time with your child, then everyone has the same expectations around communicating with one another.

“And, each child is different,” she said. “So, what worked with the first one doesn’t necessarily work with the next. It can be an open conversation through the transition.”

Benefits for empty nesters

Beyond refocusing on yourself when you child leaves the home, you also can focus on your relationships.

Dr. Shah encourages parents/couples to start thinking about their relationship and reinvest in it. Start dating again. You can plan trips together, talk about what your evenings and meals will look like without children. She mentioned that some families may have multigenerational households, so your role may not be a parent but could become a caregiver for other family members.

“Having an empty nest gives you a new opportunity to connect with your spouse/partner and rekindle interests with extra time away from parental duties,” she said.

Additionally, empty nesters should reach out to your network of friends and family. Oftentimes, your friends will have children close to the same age or they already became empty nesters. You can discuss those shared experiences and be in a space to feel supported and comfortable.

“There can be a lot of mixed feelings around becoming an empty nester,” Dr. Shah said. “It’s important to know those feelings are normal, and this is another transition in your life.”

Watch video for tips from Dr. Shah on how you can get through this transition of life.

For additional support, visit Marshfield Clinic Health System.

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