Sending your kids off to college can be an exciting time, but it can also be taxing and emotional. While a childless household may seem scary for some parents, others find it opportunistic and a time of reawakening for oneself.
If you’re finding yourself having difficulty dealing with this new stage in your life, you may suffer from what’s known as empty nest syndrome.
What Is “Empty Nest” Syndrome?
Empty nest syndrome refers to the feelings of sadness or grief that a parent may feel once all her children have left her home. The psychology behind empty nest syndrome affects parents in two main ways:
1. Threatens Identity as a Parent
Empty nest syndrome throttles many parents lives as it can feel like they are losing their identity as parents. This feeling of loss in this situation is comparable to the effects of other life changing events. In “Psychology Today”, Guy Winch, Ph.D. writes,
“Empty nest is not the only loss that involves challenges to our sense of identity. Losing our health, getting divorced, and even retiring are all examples of losses that create psychological injuries of a similar nature, as they each involve losing a hugely important role in our lives. In order to ‘treat’ these wounds, we must first come to terms with how our identities were impacted by the loss and the various ways our lives were changed by them.”
Major life events, such as losing the immediacy of parenting children in the home, can spur parallel feelings of the loss of identity as a parent, just as divorce means losing the identity of a married partner. Such emotions can certainly affect parents in a life-altering way.
2. Threatens a Fragile Marriage
Sometimes, couples in fragile marriages stay together despite certain circumstances purely to give their children a life with both parents at home. When the last child leaves home, these couples sometimes have difficulty finding new things to tie them together. The fear of losing this marriage and the glue that holds it together can become still another stressful and emotional issue for parents to feel with empty nest syndrome.
How to Overcome Empty Nest Syndrome
Regardless of the reasons that empty nest syndrome is affecting you, you do have options and opportunities to move past these feelings and improve your life in ways you previously couldn’t due to the restraints of caring for children at home.
Explore new roles.
When it comes to the loss of identity, simply waiting to adjust is not always the best option. Instead, replace those feelings of loss with a new meaningful identity with fresh interests to explore. As your role as a parent ebbs in immediate contact with your child, expand the other roles you play in your life, such as your membership in community associations, your position at work, or your role as romantic partner (whether married or dating).
This redefinition of roles can be particularly positive for couples and their romantic lives. Sara Gorchoff, Ph.D. from UC Berkeley conducted a study of marital changes in 123 women aged 40s to 60s and found that, as reported by Naomi Barr writing for Oprah Magazine,
“...empty nesters reported greater satisfaction with their partners than did mothers with children at home. […] A fall Sunday with the kids can now become a chance to go hiking together; raucous family meals turn into intimate dinners for two. And sex can regain some of the old abandon of the pre-children days.”
Barr quotes Gorchoff, who says, “It wasn’t simply having more time for each other that made the difference. It’s what they did with their time that counted.”
Refocusing on career goals is another way parents learn to deal with empty nest syndrome. On returning to her career, actress and model Andie Mac Dowell told TV blog Zap2It, “I asked myself, ‘What am I doing here? There are no kids. I am ready to go now.’” Now can be the time to use the extra time you have to put in some additional hours at the office, take on a new project, or go for that promotion you’ve been eyeing for years.
Similarly, to expand your career opportunities, you may consider going to or back to school for a new degree or skill.
Your role as a friend is another that you can strengthen with this new influx of time, and you may find solace along the way, particularly with parents who have children the same age as yours. In the Huffington Post, empty nester Suzanne Stewart suggests, “If you are feeling down, reach out to friends and family and look for a support system. Get a group of Moms (and Dads too) together and fill small boxes with goodies for the new college freshman and mail it to them.”
Find new interests.
In addition to roles, create a list of new interests you’d like to explore or current interests you’d like to pursue more deeply. You could find friends (new and old) who share those interests or join clubs in your community or online.
This may include anything from crafting and reading to sports and travel. Keep yourself active as a healthy distraction: go on more dates with your significant other, throw yourself into a new book series, or join a new organization and attend regular meetings and events. Actress Michelle Pfeiffer, for example, told “Ladies Home Journal” that being an empty nester is “scary,” but she found ways to stay busy, such as her new hobby, painting portraits.
If you can, begin these self-explorations before your child leaves home. This lessens the immediate shock of your child’s departure and gives you something to do as soon as he leaves. This is better than you having to deal with empty nest syndrome full-throttle while attempting to find these new roles and interests, which could make things infinitely more difficult. It can also accelerate the emotional adjustment process so you won’t be left with negative emotions for too long.
When it comes to your children, treat the situation as a positive one. Make it feel like an adventure and exciting step into a new chapter of both your child’s life and your own as a parent. Make a game plan for how you’ll keep in touch while he is away, and prepare what is necessary for that communication to happen on a regular basis, such as setting up plans for calling, texting, emailing, or video chatting. Also, plan a trip to visit your child together so you have something to look forward to. These efforts will help to lessen the burden for you and offer more positive emotions to go along with your child’s departure.
When it comes down to it, channeling your emotions into positive thoughts and activities is the best way to prevent empty nest syndrome from overwhelming you. Despite how it may feel at first, it is possible to move on to the next chapter in your own life. Journalist, author, and talk-show host Katie Couric sums it up for USA Today, “It’s less that I’m worried about being an empty nester than I am at being absolutely flabbergasted at how fast time flies. That’s a little bit scary. As my friend John says, ‘You’re never going to be any younger. You’ve got to enjoy the road ahead.’”
'Cedar Cove': Andie MacDowell leaves the empty nest to return to TV. (n.d.). Retrieved August 28, 2014, from Zap2It
The End of Empty Nest Syndrome. (n.d.). Retrieved August 28, 2014, from Oprah.com
How to Overcome Empty Nest Syndrome. (n.d.). Retrieved August 28, 2014, from Psychology Today
Michelle Pfeiffer's Back -- and Better Than Ever. (n.d.). Retrieved August 28, 2014, from Ladies Home Journal
Shah, Y. (2013, November 7). Celebrity Moms Reveal How They Cope With An Empty Nest. Retrieved August 28, 2014, from Huffington Post
Stavert, S. (2014, August 25). 10 Ways To Be (Really) Happy In An Empty Nest. Retrieved August 28, 2014, from Huffington Post