Relationships: Dealing with an Empty Nest

Health Writer

We raise our children to be independent. We want them to be happy, productive members of society. We want to see them successful and on their own. As they go through their high school years, we applaud every accomplishment, support every effort. We are thrilled when college acceptance letters come in the mail and stand with tears of pride as they are handed their high school diploma. Through it all, there are undoubtedly times when we couldn't wait for them to leave the house, times our patience ran thin and their demands were endless. But all of this was done - the good and the bad moments - with the safety net of knowing they were coming home each night; still sleeping in the bedroom upstairs.

Now, the time has finally arrived, they are heading to college and we, the parents, are left with an empty place at our dinner table and in our hearts. We know we are still their parent - that will never change - but suddenly we aren't needed in the same way. When you send your last child (or your only child) out into the world it is scary, sad and exhilarating all at once.

Years have been spent driving our children here and there, baking cupcakes for whatever bake sale was coming up, offering advice during a teenage crisis, talking to teachers and coordinating schedules. Now, all that is over - and the questions you are left with are: who am I when I am not a mother and what am I going to do with myself now?

Traditionally, empty nest syndrome (which isn't an actual diagnosis, but more of a psychological state of mind) was thought to be a "mom's" thing. Women were, and are, often the main caregivers. They usually invest more time in parenting than the fathers, especially if they have made the choice to be a stay-at-home mom. On top of that, the timing of the youngest child heading out the door frequently corresponds to perimenopause or menopause, when emotions aren't always stable. But fathers feel the empty nest as well. According to Helen M. DeVries, associate professor of psychology at Wheaton College, men can be more affected by the childless house because they haven't prepared for it. [1]

Single parents, either male or female, often feel empty nest syndrome acutely. Some single parents, with shared custody agreements, have had time to get used to a childless home. Their children have spend weekends, holidays and summers at the other parent's house, allowing them the time to develop their own interests, hobbies and friends. Other single parents have been left to do all the parenting and fill in the roles of both parents. They have invested an enormous amount of time and effort into their children and, may have relied on their children for company. Even though all single parents may feel saddened and depressed when their child leaves home, for parents who have assumed all parenting roles the empty nest syndrome may be particularly hard.

Symptoms of Empty Nest Syndrome

Many mothers and fathers feel at least a little sad when dropping their child off at the dormitory, sending him or her off to the military or helping them move to a new apartment. It is usually a bittersweet time - when you are bursting with pride and happiness for your child and sad that the role you played for 18 (or more) years has come to an end. This is normal and expected.

But for some, the feelings of sadness and emptiness don't go away, even days or weeks later. Some of the ways empty nest syndrome shows up are:

Depression - bouts of crying, withdrawing from routines and activities, fatigue and lack of energy, insomnia, feelings of sadness that won't go away

Feelings of uselessness - When your life was filled with activities surrounding your children, you may feel like there is simply nothing to do now.

Relationship issues - It may have been a long time since you and your spouse spent so much time alone. Problems in communication and other aspects of the relationship are often masked behind doing things with your children and talking about what your children are doing on a daily basis. But now, you and your spouse don't seem to have anything to talk about or anything in common.

What You Can Do

Having the house, and your life, to yourself doesn't have to be a bad thing. You once had a life, pre-children, and now it is time to reclaim it. That doesn't mean that you aren't still a parent (you are) or that you have abandoned your children (you haven't) or that you won't go running at times when they need you (and they will still need you). But it does mean that you are entitled to look forward to and enjoy the rest of your life.

The following are some tips to help make this time easier for you and your young adult children:

Teach your children life skills. Chances are you have been doing this for years, but in the months leading up to their departure, make sure they can do their own laundry, balance their checking account, budget their money and shop for themselves. You'll feel better once they are gone knowing that they are able to care for themselves.

Set guidelines for communication. The first weeks your child is gone can be tough and you may be tempted to call every day to see how they are doing. But these calls might not be welcome and the "Oh, it's you again," conversations can leave you feeling more deflated. Instead, talk to your child before he or she leaves about communication. Set up a time for your to talk once a week, such as Sunday evening and let your child lead on talking at other times. You may find your child texts you at least every couple days but sticks to the once a week call or you may find she calls you during the week as well. No matter what, you can look forward to knowing once a week you will talk.

Accept your feelings as natural. Don't make yourself feel worse by feeling guilty over how you feel. You are transitioning from one phase in your life to another and saying good-bye is never easy. Take some time to accept how you feel and that you have a right to feel sad.

Pay attention to possible depression. While it is natural for you to feel sad, this feeling should pass as you get used to the new household. If you find yourself crying all the time or if the feelings of sadness don't pass after a few weeks, consider talking with a therapist to help you get through this time.

Set goals for yourself. There are probably things you have wanted to do through the years that you put aside to care for your children. You might have a hobby you have never found the time to explore. You may want to go back to school. There are probably places you want to see. It may not be the right time (financially or emotionally) to just take off to see the world, but make a list of what you would like to do. Set goals on create plans to make these goals a reality.

Set goals as a couple. Just as there are individual goals in your life, you and your spouse might think, "Now we will be able to take that 2nd honeymoon," or other activities you have put off to raise a family. Just as you set goals for yourself, set goals as a couple.

Take the time to reconnect with your spouse. If you are like many couples, much of your conversation has surrounded your children. Now you have to find other topics to talk about. Find at least one activity you enjoy doing together and commit to spending time doing those activities each week. Think back to remember what brought you together and learn about each other all over.

Find new activities and friends. Many people find that as they reach the years when they are once again childless, friends have moved away or drifted away. Now is the time to reach out to find new friends. Look on sites such as to find groups with similar interests or social groups to fill your time and make new friends. Join local book, gardening or other hobby groups.

This time in your life is different, but that doesn't mean it needs to be empty. Use this time to rediscover who you are, as a person and as a couple. Think of it as an adventure. Look forward to the unknown and embrace this time in your life. Enjoy your lifeSee also:

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[1] "Dealing with Empty Nest Syndrome," 2009, May 22, Dhanishta Shah,