How to Cope with Empty Nest Syndrome When You’re a Single Parent

Colorful bird taking flightThe transition from actively parenting children to a quieter life without children in the home can be difficult for any dedicated parent. For single parents, the transition may prove especially challenging. Empty nest syndrome, however, is not always a negative experience. An emerging line of research suggests many parents actually experience a sense of generativity, renewed relationships, and excitement when children leave home.

It’s normal to experience both elation and sadness as children transition into adulthood. When a parent does not have a partner from whom to seek support, these emotions can feel overwhelming.

Empty Nest Syndrome: What Is It?

For many parents, parenting becomes a primary source of identity. They may spend almost all of their time on parenting tasks over the course of 18 or more years. So when a child leaves home, a parent may be left with feelings of emptiness, loneliness, and confusion about their identity. It’s normal to struggle with a transition and to grieve the loss of time with a child. For some parents, though, empty nest syndrome triggers feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and loneliness that can morph into depression.

It’s normal to experience both elation and sadness as children transition into adulthood. When a parent does not have a partner from whom to seek support, these emotions can feel overwhelming.

The classic, stereotypical form of empty nest syndrome is considered to strike stay-at-home parents. When a parent, stereotypically a mother, stays home with a child, that parent may have few other sources of identity. When a child no longer needs the parent, they may feel overwhelmed by their own freedom.

According to the research of psychologist Karen Fingerman, however, this phenomenon is shifting. More mothers work outside of the home. Communicating with children who are away at college is easier and more affordable than ever. So fewer parents, especially mothers, may experience empty nest syndrome.

In single parent families, the mother may be even more likely to work. This could reduce the risk of empty nest syndrome, since single parents already have another source of identity and fulfillment. However, the lack of a partner can make an empty house feel even emptier. There is no specific research on the risk of empty nest syndrome among single parents as opposed to partnered parents, and because empty nest syndrome is not a disease but instead an amorphous collection of symptoms, little research has identified specific risk factors for this phenomenon.

Empty Nest Syndrome for Single Moms and Dads

Single parents make many sacrifices for their children. While a partnered parent may be able to sneak in a few hours of leisure time each week or sleep a little later thanks to the help of another parent, single parents are often forced to do it all alone. That means less leisure time, less sleep, less time for other pursuits. Some single parents forego career changes, romance, new hobbies, and new friendships so they can have more time for their kids.

When a child moves away, single parents have more time. That can mean more time to do things they enjoy, but it may also remove a sense of purpose and joy. Some single parents may feel depressed about things they gave up because of their kids. For example, they may grieve the romantic relationships that could have been or fear that it’s too late for a career change or new hobby.

Empty Nest Syndrome: Myth vs. Reality

While many single parents experience empty nest syndrome, many also experience a renewed sense of purpose when their children leave. It’s a myth that a child’s transition to adulthood is always painful for the parents. Parenting is exhausting, time-consuming work.

Some parents relish the chance to sleep in, have more free time, pursue new relationships, and reconnect with an identity separate from parenting.

Many parents report feeling pride and joy as their children transition to adulthood. Sometimes the parent-child relationship also improves when a child moves out, since the parent can begin cultivating a friendship with the child. Some parents report connecting to their child on a deeper level when the child moves out.

Though popular myths suggest mothers are more likely to experience empty nest syndrome, some research finds empty nest-related grief is actually more prevalent among men.

Dealing with Empty Nest As a Single Parent

There’s no “right” way to feel after a child leaves home. Indeed, many parents vacillate between feelings of sadness and joy. Instead of worrying about whether their feelings are appropriate, parents should give themselves permission to explore their emotions as they transition into the next chapter of their parenting lives.

Some strategies that may help parents deal with the transition to an empty nest include:

  • Finding help from a support person or support group. A sounding board for your emotions can be helpful. Other parents who have been there can help validate your feelings and offer coping mechanisms. Find a support group near you.
  • Avoiding leaning on your child for support. This can harm the parent-child relationship and may actually intensify feelings of empty nest syndrome.
  • Planning fun events with your child without intruding on their newfound freedom. For example, plan a family trip for the holiday break or ask your child what would make a visit more fun.
  • Taking up a new hobby. You have more time and deserve to fill that time with something that brings joy. Try signing up for a class, going on dates, or curling up with a good book.

Talking through your emotions with a therapist can also help. A therapist can help you understand the role parenthood plays in your identity, then work with you to cultivate a new sense of identity. In therapy, you will work to identify self-defeating thoughts, adopt self-care tactics that reduce the risk of depression, and work toward a deeper understanding of yourself outside your role as a parent.

The right therapist can also help you adopt strategies that preserve your relationship with your child as they transition to greater independence. If your child’s transition to adulthood has shifted the family dynamic or caused conflict with other children or family members, family therapy may help.

To find a therapist who can help with empty nest syndrome, click here.

References:

  1. Clay, R. A. (2003). An empty nest can promote freedom, improved relationships. Monitor on Psychology, 34(4), 40. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/monitor/apr03/pluses
  2. Heffernan, L., & Wallace, J. B. (2017, August 2). How to thrive in an empty nest. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/02/well/family/how-to-thrive-in-an-empty-nest.html
  3. Mitchell, B. A., & Lovegreen, L. D. (2009, July 13). The empty nest syndrome in midlife families: A multimethod exploration of parental gender differences and cultural dynamics. Journal of Family Issues, 30(12), 1651-1670. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0192513X09339020
  4. Raup, J. L., & Myers, J. E. (1989). The empty nest syndrome: Myth or reality? Journal of Counseling & Development, 68(2), 180-183. Retrieved from https://libres.uncg.edu/ir/uncg/f/J_Myers_Empty_1989.pdf
  5. The dangers of empty nest syndrome. (2014, October 7). Retrieved from https://healthcare.utah.edu/the-scope/shows.php?shows=0_etom70c6

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