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Coping With Empty Nest Syndrome – Downsize & Thrive When Kids Leave

Your last child has just left for college, and although you’re excited for them to begin this new chapter in their life, you’re also experiencing a whirlwind of other emotions that you didn’t expect to feel.

You feel a deep sense of loss now that your children are all off on their own. You feel sad, even downright depressed, and you worry constantly about their health and safety. You might even feel anxiety around this change in your identity – now that you’re not “needed,” what are you going to do with yourself?

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These are all classic symptoms of empty nest syndrome (ENS), a term that’s applied to the wide-ranging emotions some parents feel when their last or only child leaves home. Let’s look at what empty nest syndrome is, and some strategies you can use to transition into this new chapter in your life.

What Is Empty Nest Syndrome?

Stop and think about how much time you’ve invested in your children over the past two decades. From nighttime nursing to driving them back and forth to their first job, parenting requires an enormous amount of time and emotional energy. For most parents, the act of parenting becomes an important part of their identity; they often put their own goals and dreams aside in order to help their children fulfill theirs.

Spousal relationships also frequently take a back seat during child-rearing years. When children leave home to start college or establish their first home, many parents find that their identity is suddenly in crisis. They’re left with an empty nest and the off-putting question, “What do I do now?” Furthermore, they might fear that now that they’re alone, they no longer have anything in common with their spouse.

According to the Mayo Clinic, empty nest syndrome isn’t a clinical diagnosis. Rather, it’s a term that defines this very specific phenomenon that some parents go through when their last child leaves home. Empty nest syndrome encompasses a wide range of emotions that can include:

  • Grief
  • Loneliness
  • Insomnia
  • Sadness or depression
  • Feelings of rejection or loss of purpose
  • Worry or anxiety

Parents might also experience significant feelings of guilt that they didn’t spend enough time with their children when they were younger, or didn’t do more to prepare them for adulthood.

While empty nest syndrome is most often associated with parenting, you can experience similar symptoms when facing other major life transitions, such as the loss of a spouse or child, divorce, retirement, or a sudden decline in health.

It’s important to realize that empty nest syndrome doesn’t affect everyone the same way. Some parents don’t experience any sadness or grief when their children leave home. Some parents might go through occasional feelings of worry or loneliness, while others will be devastated when their last child leaves home. Everyone goes through this transition in their own way, and it’s completely normal to experience a wide range of conflicting emotions.

Empty Nest Syndrome

Benefits of an Empty Nest

Here’s some good news: Empty nest syndrome might not be as common or as dire as many people believe.

According to a study published in the Journal of Family Issues, only a minority of families studied experienced symptoms of empty nest syndrome when their children left home. Another study, published in the behavioral science journal Sex Roles, cites several studies that show parents’ well-being, particularly women’s, improved when children left home.

Additionally, a nine-year study published in the journal Psychological Medicine found that for the majority of the women studied, an empty nest led to positive changes in mood, and fewer hassles.

Marital relationships can also improve during the empty nest period. A study published in the journal Psychological Science, and quoted in The New York Times, found that marital satisfaction improved when children left home. Other studies cited in the article came to the same conclusion: With children gone, parents can focus on spending more quality time together.

Yes, it’s painful when your children leave home. However, there are a number of benefits to suddenly having the house to yourself:

  • You have plenty of time to reconnect with your spouse or partner, or pursue new relationships if you’re a single parent.
  • You have the freedom to pursue hobbies or academic interests you didn’t have time for when your children were home.
  • You can focus more on taking care of yourself.
  • You might find that you have more opportunities to save money now that your children are living outside the home.

In short, you now have plenty of time to focus on your own relationships and interests, which have probably been neglected for the past couple of decades.

Empty Nest Benefits

How to Cope With Empty Nest Syndrome

If you are experiencing the symptoms of empty nest syndrome, there are plenty of things you can do to manage the transition and step into this new chapter in life.

1. Look Back at What You’ve Done

Most people will agree that raising a child is one of the hardest things you can do. Once your child leaves home and starts to live their own life, take time to reflect on the enormous feat you’ve accomplished. Your child is now an adult who’s working to accomplish her goals. She’s navigating an uncertain world using the values and skills you instilled in her from childhood.

As a parent, you were instrumental in helping her become a happy, healthy adult. All your hard work has paid off. So, take some time to acknowledge what you have accomplished. You’ve given this person to the world – and that’s a gift.

That being said, don’t discount feelings of sadness or grief you experience. The roller coaster of emotions is normal, and it’s important to accept what you’re going through. Yes, you might be grieving for a part of your life that is now over. Casual family conversations with your children over dinner, or to and from soccer practices, will now be via Skype or cell phone, where family intimacy may be lessened or even lost. Other changes, such as a silent house, a lack of routine, or a drastically reduced laundry pile, can be equally distressing.

It can be painful to accept that you will no longer know all the details of your child’s life. You won’t be as involved in their decisions, and you won’t be there for every mistake they make or heartache they experience.

So yes, you might need to mourn during this transition. Many parents do. But eventually, your feelings of sadness will lessen, and you’ll realize that life, your life, goes on.

2. Reconnect With Your Spouse or Partner

According to researchers quoted in The New York Times, the arrival of children greatly affects the amount of time partners spend with each other. Typically, married couples only have about one-third of the time alone together that they had when they were childless. This lack of quality time can put an enormous strain on relationships.

An empty nest means that you and your partner have plenty of time and opportunity to get to know each other again. You can be playful and start going on dates again. You can take a class together, binge watch your favorite TV show on Netflix, or take a vacation.

More importantly, you now have ample opportunity just to sit and talk without the stress and interruption that can sometimes come along with having children in the house.

3. Make a Dreams List

Since child-rearing is so time-consuming, many parents put off their own dreams and goals in order to make sure their children’s needs are met. Now is the time to dust off your dreams list and pick a few to pursue.

Start with the easy ones first. Is there a hobby you’ve long had an interest in but never had time for? Perhaps you’d love to take a painting class, coach a youth sports team, reconnect with old friends, or learn how to fly fish. Maybe you’d like to practice yoga at home, volunteer more, or travel internationally on the cheap. Whatever sparks your interest, you now have the time and freedom to pursue it.

Another idea is to use Meetup to find people in your community who share your interests. For example, if you love cars, you could use Meetup to meet regularly with a group of folks near you who share the same passion. Meetup is a great tool to develop friendships and learn more about whatever you’re interested in.

Next, take time to think about what goals you’d like to accomplish this year, or over the next five years. These will be longer-term objectives that might be more meaningful. For example, you might want to start a side business or pursue a master’s degree online. Perhaps you’d like to pay off your mortgage early, through-hike the Appalachian Trail, run for public office in your community, or become a mentor to a young professional in your industry. Decide on a long-term goal that’s meaningful to you, and get started on it.

Remember, a goal will stay just that unless you write it down and develop a plan to achieve it. Use the SMART approach to plan and reach your goals.

Make Dream List

4. Review Your Finances

Once your child has left home, take time to review your monthly budget. Chances are, you’ll have some financial flexibility now that you’re not buying groceries for a growing teenager (and their friends) or footing the bill for their high-priced car insurance.

It might be time to make a new budget and plan for what you’ll do with the extra money. For example, could you contribute more to your 401(k)? Make some home improvements that will increase your home’s value? Invest in green technology that will further reduce your monthly expenses?

There are many things you can do with the extra money you might have when your child leaves home. Give it some careful thought so that you’ll make an informed decision.

5. Acknowledge the Change

It’s also important to acknowledge the role-shift you will experience now that your child is on their own. Yes, you will always be a parent, but when your child leaves home, your relationship with them will start to equalize. You will now be more of a mentor, helping guide them through life’s challenges.

This shift can be challenging for some parents, who find it hard to give up control, or who worry they haven’t done enough to prepare their child for adulthood. Yes, you still need to guide your children, but you also have to let them make their own mistakes. They will still need you for advice and comfort when things don’t go as planned. Always let them know that you have complete confidence in their ability to make good decisions, and that you’ll always be there if they need help.

Another strategy that might help you adjust to your changing role is to make a list of all the other roles you occupy in life. For example, you might be a spouse or partner to someone. You might fill the role of sister or brother, daughter or son, boss or business owner. All the roles you fulfill require your time and energy, so examine which ones you’ve been neglecting while you were parenting. Which of these roles could you spend more of your time fulfilling?

6. Stay in Touch

One of the most effective ways to combat feelings of sadness or loneliness is to stay in regular contact with your children. Technology makes this easy with social media, email, texting, and video calls.

While you may want to call your child daily to check in, they might have different ideas on the level of contact, so let them take the lead. Your child wants independence, so they might resent daily texts and phone calls. Talk to them about how often they’d like you to check in so you give them the freedom they need without stepping on their toes. Plan your child’s next visit home, or pick a date to visit your child’s college and stay overnight.

Another way to stay connected with your child is to send care packages. Mailing letters and some of their favorite homemade treats is a great way to take care from a distance while respecting your child’s newfound freedom.

7. Talk to Your Remaining Children

Younger children might experience empty nest syndrome when older siblings leave home. A study published in the Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment found that remaining siblings can experience feelings of sadness and loss when older siblings move out. When the relationship is a close one, these feelings can be even more intense.

If you suspect that your younger child is experiencing sadness or even depression due to an “emptier nest,” talk to them about how they’re feeling. It can also help to find a new hobby, sport, or activity that the two of you can do together.

Another option is to give their personal space a fresh look. Repaint or redecorate, or, if you and both your children are OK with it, let the younger child move into the older child’s room. Getting a new space can help foster their own burgeoning sense of independence and alleviate some of the sadness from an older child’s departure.

Talk Remaining Children

8. Reimagine Family Spaces

Your child’s empty room, the big table that now holds only two place settings, the giant couch that all of you used to pile on for movie night – these family spaces can hold great memories. They can also be painful for some parents. Other parents find that when their children leave home they need to reorganize their space so it better fits the needs of two people.

This might be as simple as decluttering and buying smaller furniture, or it might be an all-out mission to drastically downsize your home.

Take stock of the furniture and spaces in your home that no longer work for you. Sell items on Craigslist or eBay. You might find that reorganizing or redecorating will refresh your home, and perhaps even lessen any feelings of sadness or loss you’re experiencing.

If you’re itching to do something a bit more dramatic, such as selling your home, give yourself some time to adjust before you take action. Consider renting out your home instead of selling it, so you have the option to move back in if you need to.

9. Talk to Your Spouse

Empty nest syndrome can affect both parents. However, according to the research of Dr. Helen M. DeVries, cited in the American Psychological Association’s article “An Empty Nest Can Promote Freedom, Improved Relationships,” men often have a harder time when children leave home.

According to DeVries’ study, women are much more likely to anticipate their children leaving home, and even look forward to it. They often plan ahead for what they want to do with their increased free time. Men, on the other hand, don’t talk about preparing for this new stage in life, and they are often less prepared for the emotional transition of their children leaving home. As a result, men often express regret at missed opportunities for them to play a key role in their children’s lives before they leave home.

If you suspect that your spouse or partner is avoiding talking about this upcoming transition, or if they’re feeling sideswiped by their own conflicting emotions, try and get them to talk about what they’re feeling. Remind them of the positive role they played in the child’s life, and cite specific examples of the skills and values they passed on directly. Some gentle reminders of their specific influence can help them realize that they made a positive difference.

Empty Nests That Don’t Stay Empty

According to an analysis conducted by the Pew Research Center, 32% of young adults (aged 18-34) now live with their parents, while 31% live with a spouse or partner. When broken down by gender, the numbers are even more surprising: 35% of young adult men choose to live at home, compared to 29% of young adult women.

More so than any other time in recent history, young adults are choosing to live at home, and for many reasons. The Great Recession hit millennials hard, and although the job market has improved, wages have not. College costs continue to skyrocket, and today, many young people believe it’s better to get an education and achieve financial stability before getting married and starting a family.

Even if your children are leaving home to go to school, there’s a decent chance they’ll decide to move back in after college. According to CNBC, 36% of college grads choose to move back in with their parents for at least one year after graduation. The reason? Moving back home can help young grads pay down their student loan, give them more flexibility when it comes to finding the right job, help them build up an emergency fund, or allow them to pursue additional higher education.

Although you might be thrilled to have your children back at home, it’s important to establish a plan for the additional expenses they’ll incur. Some parents ask that their children pay rent or a portion of the mortgage, not only to have additional help with monthly bills, but also to encourage their children to become more independent.

Empty Nests Dont Stay Empty

Final Word

Letting go of your child is not easy, and every parent navigates the transition in their own way. There’s no right or wrong way to experience this phase of life, and it’s important not to dismiss what you’re feeling. Talking about your emotions, and what you’re going to do for your next chapter can help you overcome feelings of sadness and loss, and allow you to re-envision new and exciting ways to add meaning and purpose to your life.

What did you experience when your children left home? How has your life changed, for better or worse, now that they’re living life on their own? Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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