Empty nest syndrome: Grief, anxiety and depression

It is that time of the year again, the start of a new academic term, when our children leave home to begin university, or perhaps they have recently moved away for work, or left home to embark on a new relationship.


When the Beatles sang “She’s Leaving Home”, it was based on a newspaper article about a teenage runaway. Whilst we are not addressing the pain of a missing child, the pathos of that song does perhaps reflect the strong emotions our children can generate in us when they leave the family home.

In recognition that it is a common life transition for parents, the phrase “empty nest syndrome” was coined to reflect the complicated emotions parents may feel about their child’s departure. The phrase is perhaps an apt analogy of fledglings leaving the nest, reflecting the natural progression of life, but it is simultaneously trite, and almost belittling to the complicated and deep feelings that parents may feel at this time of transition.

What may you be feeling?

The feeling you may experience at this time will vary depending on the relationship you have with your child, their and your own personality, your own memories of leaving home, and whether you are a single parent or parent with another. If you are in a relationship, the health of that relationship will have a big impact on your feelings too.

Common feelings around this time of change may be a feeling of sadness, grief, depression and loneliness. You may feel a sense of worry or anxiety about your child’s welfare, especially if they have a particular vulnerability. Certainly, the isolation felt by many children due to enforced lockdowns and physical separation from their peers may continue to adversely affect them as they adjust to their new life. These feelings that you may experience may make preexisting negative emotions you have much worse. If you already have, for example, anxiety or depression, you may find this period of your life particularly challenging.

Your child leaving home can leave you feeling adrift. You may have jokingly longed for peace and quiet, a tidy home and food where you left it in the fridge, but the sudden quietness and more free time is strange, leaving you feeling like you have lost purpose, particularly, as so often the case, your identity is bound up in your role as a parent. 

In a similar way to divorce or unexpected redundancy, children leaving home is often portrayed as a chance for new beginnings. Whilst that is undoubtedly true, it's important to recognise and accept that it is emotionally hard, before contemplating what it means for your future.

All these feelings are natural and normal, but as is so often the case, they are on a continuum of depth and duration and if they continue for a long period or feel overwhelming, then speaking with a counsellor may help.

Why do we feel this way?

Raising children is all-consuming in its immediacy and responsibility. It is likely that from their complete dependency as an infant to their first days in nursery, your daily schedule will have evolved to revolve around pickups and drop-offs, extracurricular activities, and prioritising your child’s welfare, often over your own. Supervision, homework, trying to keep a teenager on a good diet, worrying about what they may be exposed to online and who they associate with, and sometimes their mental health struggles, take so much energy.

If you are helping your child prepare to leave home, particularly to another city or country, your last weeks of having them at home may be one of the frantic practical preparations.

Even your social life may have been closely entwined through spending time with other parents, and there is a prospect of those relationships falling away too. How strong are the friendships? Are they just convenient or are they deeper?

Is it the same for both parents?

Not always. Often, fathers particularly – though not exclusively – focus on their role as the “breadwinner” of the family, and may feel a sense of having missed out on large parts of the child’s development, by spending so much time in work, and feel angry at themselves for having misjudged their priorities. 

If one of the parents gave up a career (or didn’t start one) to raise children, then they too may question their life choices. If one of the parents is absent, then this can make the loneliness of the other greater as there may be no one else to share feelings with, and if the absent parent has any interest at all, they may recognise that they no longer have the opportunity to guide a child to independence. 

What about your other relationships?

It can be a testing time for relationships. It is not uncommon for couples to have stayed together “for the sake of the children”, and while many observers of family life may question if that is a good approach, as it is arguable that a stable single-parent upbringing is better than a child enduring a fractious home life if it is the last child to leave home in particular, what now for your relationship? 

For many, your child leaving coincides with middle age, being financially intertwined or dependent on another, and a dread that you have left it too late to begin a life for yourself if that is something you have imagined. The common bond of raising a child has diminished (they will still need you!) and so if you stay in an unhappy relationship, the “positive” reason for staying has diminished too, and you are left with the prospect of repairing the relationship or the prospect of ending what has often been a long-term partnership. That may feel overwhelming.

Often, the advice given is to rekindle your relationship, take up new hobbies, alone or together, meet new people, and seek out adventure. That sounds really positive, but for some, it is just an additional pressure. You may not have had to actively seek friends since your own schooldays, how do you do it? As for hobbies, you may have some, but life may have been so frantic, that knowing how to spend your free time is difficult. There can be a deep longing for the past and a sense of being destabilised.

Even in a loving relationship, the sudden opportunity given to spend time together can serve to show how much you have drifted apart, and your child was the glue that held you together. You may be surprised by this. What do you do together now without the focus of raising your child? Do you share activities? Do you want the same things for your future? Perhaps you have abandoned or never had a relationship that you actively plan a future.

Sometimes, when one parent shares how keenly they feel about their child’s growing independence, the lack of acknowledgement from their partner simply serves to highlight an emotional distance that has grown between them. You perhaps are devastated, and they don’t acknowledge this, creating tension in the relationship.

For parents who have raised their children alone, and if they are stay-at-home parents, the sudden departure of their child will be particularly hard, as it is possible that your child is the only significant person in your life. Your child as a young adult is often a good friend too. Conversely, you may have had a fraught and difficult relationship with your child. Your child may express delight in “finally getting away”. Both you and your child are likely wounded and need each other, but you sense that your opportunity to repair the relationship has passed. 

What next?

If your child has left to go to university, their time away from home is likely to be transitory. Housing affordability means that there is a strong possibility that they will return home, at least temporarily, and both you and they will need to adjust again. 

And of course, if your relationship with your child is good, then you can use social media to stay in touch. If your relationship was fraught, you both have a bit of “breathing space”, and it is possible to repair the relationship after time apart. 

For most children, or perhaps I should say young adults, adjusting to life away from home is a difficult transition, and they will still need your support. Your role as a parent so far has held deep meaning for you, and you will always be mum or dad. It may be that to continue a meaningful life, you will have to seek out other meaningful roles, and bring greater depth to your existing relationship or consider if it is still the right relationship for you. It can help to speak to a counsellor to clarify your thoughts and then make the best decisions.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Liverpool, Merseyside, L37
Written by Stephen Garvey, Fully Qualified Person Centred Counsellor, NCPS accredited.
Liverpool, Merseyside, L37

Stephen Garvey is an experienced person centred counsellor based in Formby, Merseyside. He has a particular interest in counselling people with anxiety and social anxiety. He has a private and discreet office to meet with clients.

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