When kids grow up and leave home, it can be hard for parents to cope with the next season of their lives. Experts offer practical advice and helpful guidance on enduring the inevitable empty nest syndrome.

By Christine Carter
June 30, 2021
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My first child will be heading off to college several states away and the reality of her leaving wrecks me. And in a few short years, my last child will be on his way too, leaving me and my husband home alone. We often talk about the day when our kids are gone, anticipating both the emptiness of their absence and the space it will bring to our lives.

Gone will be the days of full schedules and the constant demands of parenting. What will we do? And more importantly, how will we feel once our empty nest syndrome kicks in? While it's not a clinical diagnosis, empty nest syndrome can be an emotionally challenging transition for parents.

An image of a woman looking out a window.
Credit: Getty Images.

"Empty nest syndrome is a term that's often used to refer to the grief that many parents feel when their children move out of the home," explains Sheryl Gould, parenting educator, author, and founder of Moms of Tweens and Teens. "Some common signs of empty nest syndrome are feelings of sadness and rejection, loss, and worry over a teen's safety or preparedness."

Empty nest syndrome is common, but experts say it can lead to depression, anxiety, and loss of purpose. It's a bigger risk for single parents and stay-at-home ones. Luckily, there are ways parents can focus on their emotional well-being and rebuild new lives in their empty nest.

Allow Yourself Time to Grieve

Give yourself permission to feel and experience the emotions that come with this transition. "This season requires necessary grieving. Embrace all those heavy emotions for what they are and process them as long as you need. It's OK to feel sad and it's hard to let go, so give yourself heaping doses of grace as you adjust," says Shelby Spear, mother of three who works to empower and inspire other moms, and is the author of How Are You Feeling, Momma?

Inhibiting the grieving process can cause your feelings to leak out in unhealthy ways. Gould explains that parents may try to control things in an effort not to feel. Struggling to let go might manifest itself in being too attached or enmeshed in your kid's choices and can cause a wedge in your relationship or a dysfunctional dependency when they need to be spreading their wings.

But some parents may be unable to move forward even after allowing themselves the time to grieve, and that can lead to feelings of purposelessness as their parenting role has drastically changed. They can experience symptoms of depression, such as hopelessness, loss of appetite, changes in sleep, and inability to concentrate and perform daily tasks. In this case, it's important to seek help from a medical professional.

Stay Connected to Your Kid

While it's important to allow your young adult to grow up and become more independent, you can cope by staying connected. Set up a regular check-in phone call to help keep consistent communication going between you and your kid. Having this scheduled time will also give ongoing opportunities for parenting guidance and support.

You can also text your kid to let them know you are thinking of them or send a photo of something that would make them smile. Send a care package with some of their favorite and needed items—they will love it and you will love doing it too.

Focus On Your Own New Chapter

As our kids build their own lives away from home, experts encourage parents to see this as an opportunity to seek out their own new experiences. Gould recommends parents ask themselves these questions: What do I want to do with the next phase of my life? What new pursuits would give my life meaning and purpose? What would be fun and adventurous to do that I've never done before?

It can also be the perfect opportunity to get back to old hobbies and interests you may have pushed aside once kids came into the picture. You also have more time to reconnect with old friends and your partner if you have one. Gould also recommends asking yourself: What areas of my life have I neglected that need attention?

Spear agrees. "We tend to focus a lot on what we're losing when our kids leave the nest because it's hard to imagine life without their presence under our roof. But soon enough you'll find out there is so much to be gained," she says. "This stage of parenting is full of more blessings and beautiful experiences than you could have ever imagined."

The Bottom Line

The empty nest experience isn't easy, but it can also be an exciting stage of parenting. It's an opportunity for parents to focus on themselves, pick up old or new hobbies, build relationships, and create new experiences. But if you are experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety after the transition, it's important to seek out professional help.