Empty Nest Syndrome
Empty nest syndrome describes a collection of symptoms including loneliness, grief, and loss of purpose that some parents experience when their kids leave home for college, careers, or relationships. It is not a recognized mental health condition, but it is a well-established phenomenon that can lead to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
What Is Empty Nest Syndrome?
Some parents or caregivers may adjust quickly to being an “empty nester,” and a few may even feel a sense of accomplishment or relief that they have the house to themselves. When the absence of their children causes long-term distress, however, empty nest syndrome may be the cause. Symptoms of empty nest syndrome may also affect those whose children will soon leave home and “boomerang” or former empty nesters—parents who have had a child move back in with them after a period of moving out.
Marital dissatisfaction and single parenting can increase the risk of experiencing empty nest syndrome. In many cases women are still expected to be the primary caregivers of children, and as such, women may have an increased likelihood of experiencing empty nest syndrome, though it can affect parents of both genders.
Single parents who experience empty nest syndrome may face the absence of their child without the support of a partner, and this can impact an individual’s mental health. Single parents without a strong support network may feel isolated, lonely, or abandoned as a result of empty nest syndrome. If these feelings become extreme, reaching out to a compassionate mental health professional may help a newly empty nest parent explore their feelings and prevent serious mental health issues such as depression.
Empty Nest Syndrome Symptoms
Many parents spend 18 or more years fully dedicating themselves to the well-being of their children. When children no longer need their constant care, some parents can feel directionless, lost, and extremely lonely.
Parents whose children leave home may experience:
- Feelings of guilt
- Anxiety or panic
- Extreme grief
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
- A general feeling of purposelessness
Empty nest syndrome may also impact marriages or relationships. In these cases, it may not always be obvious at first that relationship problems are being caused by empty nest syndrome.
Empty Nest Syndrome, Marriage, and Relationships
When their child leaves home, parents are often left alone together, and single parents may be left at home alone. Both of these scenarios may have mental health impacts, and in the case of couples, empty nest syndrome may impact their partnership.
Empty nest syndrome may creep into a relationship without either partner being fully aware of what is causing them to drift apart. Some signs to watch out for include lack of satisfying physical intimacy, emotional distance, or a sense of not having much in common with one’s partner. In some cases, the shared responsibility of caring for children may cause parents to deprioritize their own needs or relationship issues. When the children leave, these issues may begin to come out of the woodwork.
Divorce may be one final effect of empty nest syndrome on a marriage. According to one study, up to 1 in 4 couples who divorced were over age 50 in 2009, indicating that a significant portion of couples whose children leave home experience relationship difficulties. Being an empty nester may even be seen as a risk factor for divorce.
Counseling may be key for couples who are struggling due to empty nest syndrome. A couples or marriage counselor may help both partners regain a sense of curiosity about each other and reestablish an emotional connection, enabling them to gain a deeper sense of satisfaction from their next chapter of life together and support each other in working through grief and other symptoms of empty nest syndrome.
How to Deal with Empty Nest Syndrome
For parents struggling with feelings of grief after their kids leave home, psychotherapy can be extremely effective. Occasionally, empty nest syndrome leads to a diagnosable mental health condition such as depression, and medication such as antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs may help alleviate some symptoms along with psychotherapy.
Parents are less likely to experience empty nest syndrome when they have fulfilling lives and friendships outside of child-rearing. When parents are able to take advantage of their increased free time by making new friendships and developing new hobbies, empty nest syndrome can be a powerful tool for self-discovery and enrichment.
Empty Nest Support Groups
Support groups may be a helpful option for parents who are experiencing empty nest syndrome. One benefit of support groups is that parents may find a group they can relate to, such as a support group for single mothers or fathers or a support group for parents of only children.
Some benefits of support groups for empty nest syndrome include:
- Validation of feelings
- Safe place to express oneself
- Emotional support
- Hearing from other empty nest parents or caregivers what helped for them
- Building connections that may help reduce feelings of loneliness or isolation
Whether it’s therapy, couples counseling, or a support group, talking through the emotions brought up by empty nest syndrome may be the first step to addressing it. Find a licensed, compassionate therapist in your area who can help.
Empty Nest Syndrome in Popular Culture
Empty nest syndrome is widely recognized in popular culture. The 1980s series “Empty Nest” examined the life of a single father whose daughters had left home. Organizations such as AARP and message boards for seniors frequently address empty nest syndrome and advise seniors to find fulfilling activities outside of child-rearing.
- Beaty, J. (2016, October 28). How to rescue your marriage from empty nest syndrome. The Gottman Institute. Retrieved from https://www.gottman.com/blog/rescue-marriage-empty-nest-syndrome
- How parents can adjust to an empty nest, avoid ‘gray divorce.’ (2013, August 27). Retrieved from https://www.mprnews.org/story/2013/08/27/daily-circuit-empty-nest-divorce
- Jones, K. B. (2014, October 7). The dangers of empty nest syndrome. Retrieved from https://healthcare.utah.edu/the-scope/shows.php?shows=0_etom70c6
- Pomerance, L. M. (n.d.). The empty nest syndrome is not a mental disorder. Menopause Counseling. Retrieved from http://www.menopausecounseling.com/art4.htm
- Thayer, C. (2017). Current and soon-to-be empty nesters. AARP Research. Retrieved from https://www.aarp.org/research/topics/life/info-2017/empty-nesterdom-attitudes-behaviors.html
Last Updated: 03-27-2019
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niveditaAugust 19th, 2017 at 8:20 AM
very nicely narrated.Really helpful for my study.If you can provide some example and how counselling can be done, will be much more helpful. regards
MarisaAugust 29th, 2017 at 10:21 AM
I agree with Nivedita. I have a great supporting circle of friends and family, and yet…i have been experiencing every single one of those symptoms described in the article. How can I reach out to friends, family, etc when the only feeling I seem to have is the feeling to be left alone and I am isolated (voluntarily). I never expected my son leaving to college (my second child and last one to leave ) was going to hit me this hard/way……
Tex-r-usApril 23rd, 2018 at 6:53 PM
My wife had children at home for 27 years. After the last son left she feel hopelessly in love with the grandbaby the very next month. And within 18 months left me and moved in with the daughter just to be with them all. I think this is a big issue for certain women.
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