Watching your kids leave the nest is one of the most bittersweet parenting experiences you’ll ever have. It can be both exciting and equally saddening, leaving many parents a little disoriented about what to do next in this new phase of their life.
In this article, we’ll look at what empty nest syndrome is, its symptoms and causes, as well as how to cope when your children leave home.
What Is Empty Nest Syndrome? (Definition)
Empty nest syndrome is an experience parents or guardians may have when their children leave home. While these major life transitions are often exciting, it’s not uncommon to have feelings of grief, sadness, loneliness, loss, and even depression. Empty nest syndrome most often affects parents of grown children who leave for college or move out to start their new life in adulthood. However, it can also be experienced by parents in a new phase of parenthood, like seeing their child go to kindergarten or first grade.
Just as a child goes through different phases and transitions as they grow up, parents also go through seasons of transition.
Transitions of separation can be especially difficult for parents who tend to find their primary sense of identity in being a parent, making empty nest syndrome even more difficult to overcome.
Let’s look at some of the symptoms parents or guardians might experience.
What Are the Symptoms of Empty Nest Syndrome?
The symptoms and signs of empty nest syndrome are commonly associated with feelings one has while going through a significant change or loss. These emotions range from grief, bittersweetness, anxiety, and even depression. Let’s look at the symptoms more closely.
- Sadness is a normal response to loss common among parents or guardians watching their child grow up. It often moves people to reflect and seek out support from others.
- Grief is a process or journey of feeling lost, longing, and loss, according to research1https://brenebrown.com/book/atlas-of-the-heart/. It often triggers a need to find a new meaning or purpose.
- Anxiety is a common response to feeling uncertain about your child’s future and feeling unclear about your role moving forward.
- Frustration is felt when parents struggle to come to terms with their new reality and wish things could return to the way things were.
- Bittersweetness is a mix of sadness and gratitude often felt by parents who are letting go of a season of their child’s life and moving on to the next.
- Loneliness is common among parents who feel disconnected from their children.
- Nostalgia is a longing and wanting to protect the way things used to be with your child, which can sometimes lead to depression.
- Depression2https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/depression/what-is-depression is a combination of emotions and symptoms, including sadness and loss of interest. Parents may experience depression when they are unable to process their grief.
- Marital stress is not uncommon among parents transitioning into a new rhythm with their child(ren) out of the house and can often cause increased tension and bickering.
What are the Causes of Empty Nest Syndrome?
The causes of empty nest syndrome result from natural life transitions as children grow up or leave home. Parents and guardians will experience varying degrees of distress through these transitions, typically due to a loss of identity, purpose, or control. According to research3https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0165178116309799, major life transitions associated with your identity are more likely to cause stress and affect your overall well-being, and can even lead to depression.
Major life transitions may cause feelings of loss, including:
- Loss of identity and purpose. As a parent or guardian, it may be hard to sit in your now empty house and wonder what you’re supposed to do next without having a child at home to take care of. You might start asking yourself, Who am I? What’s my purpose?
- Loss of control. When your child moves out and spreads their wings, feelings of distress may result from the anxiety you feel not being able to control what happens next for them, both in their success and failure.
If you experience empty nest syndrome, you are not alone! This is a major life transition for you and your child(ren), and it’s normal for these transitions to come with their share of emotions. Let’s look at some strategies to help you cope.
How Do You Overcome Empty Nest Syndrome? 9 Tips to Help You Cope
Process your grief
When someone experiences loss (including loss of identity often associated with major life transitions), it’s common to do one of two things—ignore it or dwell in it. However, research4https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1112778/ shows that both ignoring and dwelling on your grief can be harmful. It’s essential to feel and process your emotions and then come to terms with a new season of life.
While processing your grief may not altogether remove it, it can help you identify your next steps and find new meaning for your life going forward.
To process your grief or loss, try some of these ideas:
- Journal about or meditate on what you’re grateful for as a parent over the last season of your child’s life. Then look forward, and journal about the things you’re excited about.
- Process your emotions through an expression of art, like poetry, writing a story, photography, dance, or music. Research5https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/00302228221111726 shows that art therapy can be healing.
- Listen to a podcast interviewing others who are going through a similar experience. Check out this list of the top 25 empty nest podcasts in 2023.
- Talk to a trusted friend or therapist. Know that you are not alone in your experience. Talking with someone in your situation is one of the best ways to process your grief and move into a new season of life.
Develop a new routine
In this new season of life, you may feel disoriented. You’ve been flexing around your kid’s schedules and routines for a long time, and when they leave, it may be hard to know what to do with yourself. To develop a new routine, start by reevaluating your values and goals, and then build a new schedule and routine centered around those values and goals.
- Identify your values. It’s not uncommon for your values to shift in new seasons of life. This is a great time to look at your values and what you care about most today. Check out our list of core values and identify the top five that resonate with you.
- Determine your goals. Once you have identified your top five core values, write down the activities you currently do or want to start to align. For example, if you chose generosity as one of your core values, you might aim to be more involved in your community and then decide to volunteer your time towards a cause you love.
- Build a new schedule. Once you’ve determined your values and goals, build a new schedule and routine for your day. For example, you might volunteer at your local homeless shelter one day a week. Or if you chose creativity as a value, you might decide to spend Saturday mornings painting or taking photographs of nature.
Want to set better goals for yourself in this new season of life? Check out this helpful resource!
How To Set Better Goals Using Science
Do you set the same goals over and over again? If you’re not achieving your goals – it’s not your fault!
Let me show you the science-based goal-setting framework that will help you achieve your biggest goals.
Join a club or community group
During this season, you may find yourself with the extra time you never had before. You may also realize that the people you’ve spent most of your time with were either your kids or the parents of your kids’ friends during your kid’s activities.
Of course, you can still connect with these friends (chances are they’re in the same boat as you), but you have less reason to connect now that your kids are away. This is a great time to join a club or community group to connect with old friends and make new ones!
Some clubs or community groups you might try include:
- Fitness club
- Book club
- Art club
- Garden club
- Theater group
- Local committee
- So many more (this list can get long!)
Basically, if you have an interest or hobby, there is likely a club or community of people who are interested in it too. You might be able to connect with these communities through Facebook Groups, NextDoor, or your local park district.
Launch a new phase of your relationship with your adult child
While seeing your child leave the nest can be difficult, it can also mark an exciting new season in your relationship. As young adults, they are gaining their independence and finding their voice in the world. While they may rely less on you for their everyday livelihood, your relationship can develop into an adult friendship.
Some things you can do to launch this transition with your adult child:
- Don’t come to the rescue. Accept that they will fail sometimes and celebrate when they win. It’s possible to develop a relationship based on moral support without falling into codependency.
- Set financial boundaries. Establish what’s fair for you to support financially (maybe tuition, books, and health insurance), and transition other expenses to them.
- Plan phone dates or in-person dates to connect. Stay connected and express your unconditional support, but note that connecting with your adult child every day may not be healthy for either of you as they seek to establish themselves.
- Refrain from giving unsolicited advice. Discuss ideas with your adult child like you would a peer.
Don’t forget to communicate with your adult child about this new phase of your relationship. It may feel a little unstable as you get started, but as you develop a new rhythm and communicate openly about what’s working and not working, you’ll begin to enjoy this sweet new season.
Launch a new phase of your relationship with your partner
What was once a home filled with the bustle of activities, juggling schedules, family meals, visiting friends, and school projects now feels eerily quiet. You might come home from dropping your last child off at college, and suddenly you and your partner feel at a loss for how to exist in this new phase of your relationship.
For some, this new dynamic introduces an awkward season of getting to know each other again. Rather than worry about where your relationship might go wrong, embrace this new season and have fun! Did you know? 63% of empty-nesters6https://www.55places.com/blog/survey-reveals-empty-nesters-still-supporting-children-financially report becoming closer to their spouse! Decide together to launch a new phase of your relationship.
What might this new phase look like? Here are a few ideas:
- Walk down memory lane and reminisce about your lives together thus far.
- Get away together on a romantic trip somewhere you’ve always wanted to go.
- Revisit places and do activities you used to enjoy together when you first started dating.
- Get to know each other in this new season of life. Ask questions of each other you think you might know the answer to and see if anything has changed.
- Initiate a date night or day once or twice a week to check out new restaurants, visit new places, get intimate, play games, or volunteer together.
- Go on a couple’s retreat to relay the foundations of your relationship.
Take up a new hobby
You may find some extra time on your hands now that your kids are out of the house. This is a great time to take up a new hobby or pick up a hobby you put to the side for a while. Not only are hobbies a great way to make new friends, but they are also proven to reduce stress7https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07053436.1995.10715489!
Here are a few hobby ideas to help you decide what you want to do with your free time:
- Host a regular game night with friends
- Learn a new language
- Attend workshops or conferences
- Take up yoga or dance
- Join a writers’ group
- Take a woodworking class
- Join a band or take music lessons
- Start a book club and read a book every month
For more hobby ideas, check out our article on the 33 best social hobbies.
Go on a trip
Raising kids often limits our ability to travel. With any empty nest, consider taking a trip with your partner, friends, or even solo to a place you’ve always wanted to see! A vacation might be just what you need to overcome the stress of this major life transition.
As it turns out, travel also benefits your overall health and well-being. In fact, some of the benefits of travel8https://campuspress-test.yale.edu/tribune/scientifically-proven-health-benefits-of-traveling-abroad/ include:
- An immunity boost
- Greater emotional awareness
- Increased cognitive flexibility
- Reduced stress
- Reduces the chance of heart disease
Spend time with friends
In this new season of your life, you have an opportunity to develop richer relationships with your friends. Connecting with others may also help you process the loss, stress, and disorientation you’re experiencing. Chances are, they can empathize with you, help you feel less alone, and help you discover a new purpose for your life.
And why not spend time with friends doing something new?!
Here are a few ideas from our article 61 Unique Things to Do With Friends:
- Go on a thrift store adventure
- Go to a local art museum
- Attend a conference together
- Train for a 5k or a Marathon
- Play team sports
- Start a cooking club
Get a pet
If you’re missing taking care of your kids, one way you can help fill that gap and reduce your stress is by getting a pet. In fact, research shows9https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2018/02/power-pets#:~:text=Possible%20Health%20Effects&text=Interacting%20with%20animals%20has%20been,support%2C%20and%20boost%20your%20mood. that interacting with pets can decrease cortisol and lower your blood pressure!
Empty Nest Syndrome FAQs
Depending on your ability to cope, empty nest syndrome and the feelings of anxiety or depression that often come with it can be overcome. With the right support and intention (like seeking therapy and starting new hobbies), empty nest syndrome can be overcome.
Empty nest syndrome is a normal part of life that can last for a short (a few months) or an extended period (a year or more), depending on the person. For parents who were particularly attached or linked part of their identity to parenting their child, adjusting to a new lifestyle may take a year or longer. However, parents who develop or maintain an identity outside parenting may more easily and quickly overcome empty nest syndrome.
Empty nesters with newfound freedom often enjoy activities they couldn’t do as full-time parents, including travel, volunteering for causes they love, new hobbies, a new job, or spending more time with friends.
The psychological effects of empty nest syndrome include depression, likely due to a sudden loss of identity or purpose developed as a parent. Those who experience depression may experience difficulty sleeping, mood swings, loss of self-esteem, grief, anxiety, lack of motivation, and feelings of loneliness.
Empty nest syndrome has three stages: grief, relief, and joy. In the first stage, parents tend to experience sadness, loss, loneliness, or even depression. In the second stage, parents move on to feeling relief and a sense of freedom as they develop a new rhythm of life. In the final stage, parents start to feel more settled and enjoy a new season of parenthood.
Any parent can experience empty nest syndrome. However, some parents may have a more challenging time coping than others if they struggle with codependency, are stay-at-home parents, are single parents, or are parents who find a great deal of identity in parenthood.
Empty Nest Syndrome Key Takeaways
In summary, take note of these helpful tips to cope with empty nest syndrome:
- Process your grief through journaling, art therapy, or counseling.
- Develop a new routine by reevaluating your values and goals in this new season.
- Join a club or community group to find new ways to spend time.
- Launch a new phase of your relationship with your adult child and enjoy this new season.
- Launch a new phase with your partner and rekindle your romance.
- Take up a new hobby to try something new and reduce stress.
- Go on a trip to somewhere you’ve always wanted to see.
- Spend time with friends to connect with those who can empathize and encourage you.
- Get a pet for companionship and to improve your well-being.
If you are experiencing grief, we encourage you also to check out our article 12 Types of Grief and Everything You Need to Know About Them.