What is 'empty nest syndrome'? Tips for parents who are struggling

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With thousands of young people leaving home to go to university, it can be an exciting yet daunting time for parents as well as students.

While the transition is undoubtedly a positive experience for the child as they grow into independent adults, it can be painful for the parent, as ‘empty nest syndrome’ can leave you feeling sad and lonely as you let them go.

What is empty nest syndrome?

While empty nest syndrome isn’t a clinical diagnosis, it can be a very real issue. It is characterised by feelings of loss, grief, sadness and loneliness when your last (or only) child leaves home. You may:

  • Miss having your child around every day to talk to and miss being a part of their daily life – something which you have probably been used to for the past 18 years or more
  • Find it difficult to accept that your child has grown into an adult who no longer needs you to care for them
  • Worry about your child’s safety or whether they will be able to take care of themselves
  • Feel as though you have lost your identity as a parent

Empty nest syndrome can be particularly difficult:

  • If your child leaves home unexpectedly, or earlier than you thought they would
  • If you have only one child
  • In the case of your youngest and last remaining child leaving home

While it’s entirely normal to miss your child when they leave home – with these feelings tending to lessen over time – some parents experience further difficulties such as anxiety, depression, addiction and even marital/relationship problems. Here, we provide tips on how to cope with empty nest syndrome, and when to seek professional help.

Tips for parents on how to cope with empty nest syndrome

View it as a beginning, not an ending

Rather than viewing your child moving out as an ending and a sign that their childhood and your role as a caregiver is over, think of it as another part of the parenting journey. It’s a new and exciting beginning for both of you, and the start of a brand new life stage.

Focus on your child’s best interests

Moving out is a hugely positive step for your child – it brings them independence and responsibility, and sets them up for adult life. Give your child encouragement and praise, and do everything possible to help them succeed.

Avoid telling your child that you’re feeling sad, lonely and distressed. By all means, let them know that you miss them, but for anything further confide in someone else so you’re not making your child feel guilty or worried as they attempt to adjust to their new surroundings and lifestyle.

On the flip side, your child may also feel lonely and homesick. If this is the case and they confide in you, avoid encouraging them to come home no matter how much you want to. Moving out and gaining their independence is a step they need to take, and as a parent, it’s important for you to support this.

Keep in touch

In this day and age, it’s easier than ever to stay in contact, even if your child is hundreds of miles away. Living apart doesn’t mean you have to stop having a close relationship. Make an effort to text, video call and email on a regular basis, and arrange visits to see them.

Stay positive

Instead of focusing on how much you miss your child, think about all the positives. You have increased time and energy to focus on things you enjoy, as well as an opportunity to reconnect with your spouse or partner.

While it can be hard to accept that your child is an adult who needs their own space and privacy, this also means you have more space and privacy for yourself – you may as well make the most of it.

Keep yourself busy

Staying busy and searching for new opportunities and challenges - whether in your personal or professional life - can give you focus. Go for that promotion at work, redecorate the house, take up a new hobby or learn a new skill. All of these things can help to ease the sense of sadness and loss that you might feel.

Make plans

Another way to cope with feeling sad is to make plans to look forward to. These could involve your child, such as family events and going out for birthdays. You could also make plans to put your extra time, space and money to good use. For example, you could plan that holiday you’ve always wanted to go on.

Seek support

Remember, it’s completely normal and healthy to miss your child when they move out for the first time. If you’re having a difficult time, speak to loved ones including your family and friends for support. The likelihood is that many of them will know what empty nest syndrome feels like and will be able to offer advice.

However, if you find that you are feeling overwhelmed, tearful or low all of the time, you may need professional support to help you through this stage in your life. Try speaking to your GP, or get in touch with Priory. We can provide you with access to expert psychiatrists, therapists and other mental health professionals who will be able to support you through this difficult stage.

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