Understanding Empty Nest Syndrome: What Is It and Why Does It Happen?
Written by: Zafra Aswar Ali
To become a parent, one must be prepared to face a series of challenges specifically that relate to their children because of many significant life events associated with them. Out of such life events, one of the major events that occur within a family and has an impact on parents is when their adult children decide to leave the family home for various reasons. In this article, we will explore what is empty nest syndrome, the reasons for its occurrence, and how parents can cope with it.
What is Empty Nest Syndrome?
Empty nest syndrome can be defined as an emotional and psychological condition that parents or caregivers undergo when their children move out of home to pursue higher education, work, or start a new life. This can lead to feelings of sadness and loss of purpose which is often overlooked due to this event being viewed as normal. Even though empty nest syndrome is not a clinical condition listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5), according to research, this syndrome can result in mental health problems like anxiety and depression.
It is also noteworthy that some parents are more susceptible to empty nest syndrome than others, especially single parents and parents who struggle in their marital life. So, not all parents undergo this experience. In addition, mothers tend to be more affected by empty nest syndrome comparatively because of the role they play as primary caregivers in most families.
Most of the time, empty nest syndrome takes place concurrently with other significant or difficult life events such as retirement, menopause, death of a spouse, or other challenges. During such situations, empty nest syndrome can last for years, but typically most parents adjust to being empty nesters within 2 to 3 months.
The Three Stages of Empty Nest Syndrome
1. Grief – As soon as the child leaves home, parents initially experience a sense of sadness and loss making them easily emotionally triggered and staying away from the usual activities.
2. Relief/Emptiness – After a few months have passed by parents would either feel relieved as they now have some time to spend by themselves, or they may feel empty.
3. Joy/Fear and Worry – The final stage also varies from parent to parent. Some of them would feel joyful for having fulfilled their responsibilities as parents and feel settled with a new way of life, whereas others would not only feel hopeless about their future lives but also continuously worry about their children’s lives as well.
Common Symptoms/Emotional Experiences
Based on the stages of empty nest syndrome, the symptoms are not necessarily negative as some empty nesters may be excited about a new life ahead. Let us look at some commonly noticeable symptoms connected to empty nest syndrome.
Empty nesters often feel lonely and isolated. They may tend to reduce their social interactions and often get caught up in nostalgia.
This is another common symptom of empty nest syndrome. Parents may be unable to focus on their work like before and would frequently worry and be anxious about what their children are doing.
Empty nesters can feel low sometimes. They may lack the motivation and energy to do their work and would be preoccupied with thoughts about their children.
4. Emotional Distress
Parents experiencing empty nest syndrome would find themselves going through a roller coaster of emotions. They are either sad about the absence of their children at home or happy about a newfound freedom.
5. Identity Shift
When children move out of home, parents no longer identify themselves as individuals who play the role of parents and struggle to adapt to a new stage in their lives. This may lead to a loss of purpose, particularly among stay-at-home parents.
6. Reevaluating Roles and Relationships
With a shift in identity, parents get an opportunity to reevaluate their roles and relationships as they do not have to engage in parenting daily. Additionally, they also get to rediscover their interests and make this new phase a positive experience.
How to Deal with Empty Nest Syndrome?
1. Acknowledge Your Emotions
It is completely normal to feel sad and lonely. It is important that these feelings are accepted without hesitation.
2. Embrace The Change
Take this as an opportunity to rediscover your interests and find more time for self-care. Invest more time in enhancing your personal growth which you could not engage in during the parenting phase.
3. Reconnect with Your Partner
When your children are no longer present at home, you can spend more time with your spouse and increase the bonding in your relationship. Research also suggests that 63% of empty nesters became closer to their partners after the leaving of their children.
4. Build Social Connections
Parenthood undoubtedly minimises social connections in most cases due to the minimum time parents have even for themselves. As an empty nester, you can utilise your free time to connect with your friends again. This will potentially reduce the feeling of loneliness.
5. Keep in Touch with Your Children
Due to the existing technology, it is easy to connect with anyone in any part of the world. So, although you become an empty nester, make use of the technology and maintain communication with your children wherever they are through chats and audio or video calls or even visit them if possible. This way, you can feel less lonely and still express your love and affection despite the distance.
6. Get Professional Assistance
Sometimes engaging in coping techniques to alleviate the negative symptoms associated with empty nest syndrome may not be sufficient. In that case, do not hesitate to seek support from a professional counsellor to manage your emotions via suitable therapies.
Children leaving the home to build their lives can be certainly overwhelming for parents and can lead to empty nest syndrome as it is a new life transition that parents may go through. It is however imperative to understand the symptoms linked with this empty nest syndrome as well as take it as an opportunity to overcome the challenges and work on self-growth with professional assistance if required.