It’s only natural for parents to want their children to grow up, become independent and leave home, yet when the time comes for them to fly the nest, it can unleash a range of feelings. Rachel Newcombe takes a look at empty nest syndrome, how it can affect parents and how best to deal with it.
Empty nest syndrome refers to the time in life when grown-up children leave home. It’s an inevitable part of growing up, and although parents know it will occur, it doesn’t lessen the impact when it happens.
Some of the feelings described by parents include sadness, loneliness and a lost sense of purpose. Although they’re proud of their children taking their next steps in life, they’re also conflicted by their own mix of emotions.
The feelings don’t always become apparent right away. “Parents may be pleased and excited to support their kids in their new plans, helping them to move and settle in a new job, home or university,” says Kate Lee, a counsellor and therapist.
“It may take several weeks or months before they suddenly get hit by a sense of loss, often when they least expect it.”
For example, it may be due to an aspect of an old routine that you’ve now lost, such as a habit of picking up your child after a football match, or going shopping together at weekends.
“I felt overwhelmingly sad and weirdly hollow when each of my three children left,” says Celia Dodd, mum and author of The Empty Nest: How to survive and stay close to your adult child.
“As well as physically missing each one, it felt like the end of an era of family life that I’d really loved – and there was always that feeling that I hadn’t made the most of it.”
Although you might feel reluctant to acknowledge your feelings, it’s normal given the huge change that has occurred in your home and family life.
“When your child leaves home for good – especially the last to leave the nest – it’s as big a change in your life as when you brought home your first baby,” believes Sharon Greenthal, a mum who runs the Empty Nesters Community and writes the blog Empty House Full Mind.
“For years your children were the centre of your world, and now they’re not. If you didn’t feel some sense of loss, it would be odd.”
If you do experience any of the feelings associated with empty nest syndrome, there are practical things you can do to help you deal with it and re-shape your identity as more than just a parent.
“Firstly, remind yourself that your child leaving home was the goal from the beginning,” suggests Sharon. “You wanted to raise an independent adult and you’ve done it!
Rather than ignoring how you’re feeling, acknowledge your feelings and talk about them. If your child has left for university, perhaps you’ve got friends who will be in a similar situation?
Look after yourself and practice self-care. “Compile a list of things you can rely on to make you feel better if you feel blue,” suggests Celia.
“For example, for me, that’s watching a movie, playing music, going for a swim or a walk with a friend, knitting or reading a good book.”
Keeping yourself busy can be a good distraction and, if you have more time available, it’s a chance to focus on doing something for you. Make plans, try new activities or take up old hobbies.
Both parents can be affected by empty nest syndrome and sometimes it can put a strain on relationships.
“Take time to focus on your relationship, talk and spend more time together,” suggests Kate. “It can be valuable time to re-charge, re-evaluate and re-shape your relationship”
Although it’s hard to imagine when the feelings are raw, going through this period of change and growth in your life could bring benefits in the future.
“Loads of good things have emerged which I never imagined,” says Celia. “I gradually discovered I had more creative energy and felt inspired to try new things. After years of having to say no to opportunities, I could finally say yes, like to a trip of a lifetime to Russia!”
With spare time on his hands, single dad Andrew Roberts found the empty nest gave him the chance and inspiration to change careers and re-train as a conservation officer.
“It was a dream I’d had, but never got to achieve. So when both boys left home the time eventually felt right to focus on me for a change.”
Self-development and finding a new purpose in life are common themes amongst empty-nesters. Sharon took the opportunity to get back to writing – something she loved - and started a blog, which has led to other opportunities.
“I was a stay-at-home mum for 20 years, so the empty nest was both exciting and terrifying for me,” explains Sharon. “It took me a year after my youngest left for college to find my way back to what I’ve always loved to do.”
What’s more, in the long term, your relationship with your child can change for the better too. “For me, this is the unexpected silver lining of the empty nest,” says Celia. “The relationship can develop into a more equal – and often richer – one, between two adults.”
“Having space to develop as individuals outside the family gives adult kids a new perspective on their parents, so they see them as individuals, rather than just mum or dad. They stop taking their parents for granted and appreciate them more.
So, despite the feelings of emptiness and the end of an era when children first leave home, things will slowly improve. Life will never be exactly the same, but being the parent of a grown-up child can become a new sense of normal.