Empty nest syndrome: How to cope when your children grow up

When a youngster leaves for uni, it's common to hear things like, "I've got all sorts of ideas for the extra space in the house". Or comments like "I can't wait for them to get back to school" 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.


What is empty nest syndrome?

Empty nest syndrome is the name given to the sense of loss and sadness that occurs when a child leaves the family home to gain independence, go to university or college, or 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 caregiver, 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.

Change can bring on feelings of anxiety and uncertainty in some people. The reminders that your children are growing up and gaining their rightful independence can certainly bring about feelings of sadness and anxiety.

The time of year when many parents feel this first loss is after the long summer holidays. This is 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 and/or children's individual choices, leaving one parent adapting to a home which is now childless. Others can find that their home, once busy with babies or toddlers, is 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 are 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 that the departure of one's children can coincide with menopause - the biological incapability to raise more children.

That being said, men are becoming increasingly affected by empty nest syndrome in the Western world, particularly where caregiving is shared between the parents.

How to cope with empty nest syndrome

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 a level of contact that suits you both. 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. Sharing these feelings with your child could add extra pressure or feelings of guilt, and make it feel more difficult for them to talk or share their feelings with you.

Feelings of loss can be tinged with regrets or feelings of guilt about decisions made during their upbringing. 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 parent's 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 things 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 yourself of options repeatedly until the imagination for future possibilities starts to open up.

As you open up 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. But if you find yourself struggling to process how you feel, it can be helpful to talk to a trusted friend, a qualified counsellor or a coach to help you move forward.

When to seek further help

If feelings of sadness turn into feelings of hopelessness or emptiness, or are prolonged and involve a lack of purpose or worth, then you may be experiencing depression. If this occurs, it's important to contact your GP or alternatively a counsellor for help.

Sometimes, if prolonged sadness has turned to more prolonged feelings of depression, it is a sign that the change from childhood to independence is not the only loss being felt. The loss of a role as a full-time parent can make you focus on the rest of your life. If you are single, it can remind you that, aside from your children, you may be missing having something else in your life. Or if you are in a relationship, it can expose cracks with your partner.

If your own experience of leaving home or entering education was a painful time, your child's period of change can re-trigger these feelings.

However you are feeling, talking to a trained and unbiased counsellor can help you get to the root of your feelings and plan a way forward.

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

Share this article with a friend
Cromer NR27 & Norwich, Norfolk NR3
Written by Danny Hickling, BSc (Hons).Couns. MBACP.(Reg) (MNCS Snr Accred)
Cromer NR27 & Norwich, Norfolk NR3

I am a registered Psychotherapeutic Counsellor with the UKCP and am also registered with the BACP.
I hold a degree in Integrative Counselling and am qualified in BrainSpotting having attended courses in London and Amsterdam. I work in using many of the latest advances in Neuroscience linking past events to present feelings or behaviour.

Show comments

Find a therapist dealing with Family issues

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals