EMPTY NEST SYNDROME - how to cope when your children grow up
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Danny Hickling. BSc (Hons). Couns. MBACP. UKCP. Counselling & Psychotherapy
1st September, 20130 Comments
"I can't wait for them to get back to school". "I can't wait to have the house back to myself". When a youngster leaves for Uni, sayings such as; "I've got all sorts of ideas for the extra space in the house".
These are some of the comments that you hear at this time of year when the long summer holidays draw to a close; children return to school and a new intake of freshers leave parental homes to establish their first steps towards independence. Whilst many parents enjoy this new opportunity for independence others can react to this period of change and transition in very different ways.
Change can bring on feelings of anxiety and uncertainty in some people, and in addition the reminders that your children are growing up and gaining their rightful independence can certainly bring about feelings of sadness and anxiety.
'Empty nest syndrome' is the name given to this sense of loss and sadness that occurs when a child leaves the family home to gain independence, go to university or college, or to move into a new marital home. However, this syndrome can also be extended to the feelings that occur when children leave the full time care of the main care giver, such as when a child leaves for nursery/ school, or in particular boarding school.
'Empty nest syndrome' can occur at any time of year, and can be created in many different guises. But all are created when children leave their parents grasp and move out into the wider world.
As I mentioned earlier, it's now the time of year when many parents feel this first loss is after the long summer holidays - when many teenagers make the step to young adulthood and leave the family home for the first time to college or university. For other parents the loss can occur at a much earlier age and in very different circumstances. Separations and divorce can lead to custody battles of children's individual choices leaving one parent adapting to a home which is now childless; others can find their home, once busy with babies or toddlers, transformed into silence as their children now attend school.
For some, this period of transition can occur later in life when children gain their independence, or conversely, leave to create their own marital home.
Where children were a focus of energy and attention for many years, their loss from the household can be felt in a spectrum anywhere between sadness and grief. Where natural feelings of sadness exist at this loss, these can diminish over the weeks and months and be filled with the possibilities of future changes that can be made with spare time or even money that may now be available.
These feelings are particularly prevalent in - but by no means exclusive to - women. They tend to occur mostly in women because traditionally women have been the primary care givers to children - and in the past because it was they who were often expected to give up careers and other interests to raise their children. An additional reason why women might be more affected is because an awareness of menopause and the biological incapability to raise more children can coincide with the departure of one's children. Men are becoming increasingly affected in the western world, particularly where the caregiving is shared between the parents. However, while some mourn the loss of time with their children, other adults the parent may have contact with can relish the spare time that this brings. This conflict in how others see the transition in their lives can lead the parent to be misunderstood and even lead to them not gaining the sympathy they may have hoped from their friends.
Often the parents affected by 'Empty nest syndrome' will carry on with day to day activities and feel occasional pangs of sadness. I've heard of cases where a parent may spend time in the room of their fledged child to get a sense of being near them.
Assuming that your child is happy to communicate with you, try to keep abreast of all the changes in technology by communicating by phone text and through the Internet on SKYPE. By all means tell them at the end of a conversation that you are missing them so they know they are loved; but if you are going through intense feelings it's usually best not to share it with them, but better to talk to an impartial person or a counsellor. Sharing these feelings with your child could add extra pressure or feelings of guilt to a child and make it feel more difficult for them to talk or share their feelings with you.
This loss can be tinged with regrets or feelings of guilt at decisions made during their upbringing, or in decisions you made as a result. Often where this sadness occurs it can be complicated by a lack of self worth if excess energy has been pushed towards the child's progression at the excessive sacrifice of the parents own personal progression.
EXPAND INTO THE VOID
The departure of a child can lead to a loss of a role for the left-behind parent and potentially a loss of identity; therefore, expanding yourself into this void by taking on new interests and meeting new friends can be very useful. This can take some perseverance at first, as possibilities that you once took for granted that you were unable to do because of your responsibilities as a parent suddenly become viable choices. This requires, in effect, the retraining of the brain to remind one of options repeatedly until the imagination for future possibilities start to open up. As one opens to the possibility of new ideas for the future, new neural pathways in your brain are forged and a new way of thinking about your future is formed. New hobbies, friends, a career or retraining become possibilities in many areas of your life. Some people find this process easy and exciting and require no help along the way while others may turn to a counsellor or coach to help them move forward.
WHEN TO SEEK FURTHER HELP
Where feelings of sadness turn into feelings of hopelessness or emptiness in one's life, or are prolonged and involve a lack of purpose or worth, then the natural initial feelings of loss may have progressed into Depression. It is important if this occurs to contact your GP, and additionally a Counsellor for help.
Sometimes if prolonged sadness has turned to more prolonged feelings of depression it is a sign that the change of childhood to independence is not the only loss being felt. The loss of a role as a full time parent can make parents focus on the rest of their life. If they are single it can remind them that, aside from their children, they may be missing having something else in their life; or if they are already in a relationship it can expose cracks in their own relationship with their partner. If the parents leaving home or entering education was a painful time for themselves, their children's period of change can re-trigger these feelings. If this is the case, talking to a trained and unbiased Counsellor can help get to the root of these feelings and planning a way forward.
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