Tips for Coping with Empty Nest Syndrome

5 tips for coping with ‘Empty Nest Syndrome’

  • Many parents feel grief and sorrow when their children leave home
  • These feelings are called ‘Empty Nest Syndrome’
  • A Priory expert gives her top tips for parents processing these emotions

As thousands of teenagers take up their places at university, some of them leave behind more than empty rooms at home. Their parents, used to having them around, can suddenly find themselves alone in an unusually quiet house, struggling to handle the emotions this provokes. This sensation, a combination of loneliness and grief, is dubbed ‘Empty Nest Syndrome’, and although it is not a clinical diagnosis, it is widely recognised to affect thousands of parents every year.

A record number of 18-year-olds in the UK have accepted university places this year - 272,500 of this age cohort are starting at UK universities, up 7% on last year. Parents can be left feeling purposeless, lacking in direction, and unmotivated. Some parents have reported that even their pets can be left pining for the child who has ‘moved on’.

Parents who find themselves feeling low and anxious are definitely not alone, and there are steps they can take. Priory psychotherapist Pamela Roberts, based at the Priory’s Hospital in Woking, Surrey, says; “Any signs of loneliness are ultimately a sign to reach out, when you are ready, and connect and talk to people who can just listen. With compassion, grief softens.”

Pamela offers tips for people coping with Empty Nest Syndrome:

Remember, your children may have left home, but they are still a big part of your life

“Teenage children will always need their parents but now in a different way. Sometimes, if a parent comes from a secure position themselves, this separation will be easier to handle, but if there are insecurities there with the parent, these can surface and the process of separation may be more difficult. Yes, it is a tricky and challenging time, but be there to show the way - not to control it. 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.”

Meet up with people in a similar situation

“Grief accompanies loss, and needs the soft hands of compassion. Parents who are suddenly finding their homes ‘empty’ of children must be compassionate with themselves, and also look for compassion among friends and support groups, including chat groups, where they will find many like-minded people who understand the emotions.”

Build a new life routine

“Keeping a structure and routine is also useful. Have a new ritual to the days and evenings. Yes, this is a time for anxiety, as the teenager – the adult child - is exploring a new life, but it is the parent’s job to find resilience with their own anxiety, and not put that upon the adult child’s shoulders. Allow yourself to miss your child, this is normal and very human. But also bring in the positives, and how you will use your time to focus on things you enjoy, as well as an opportunity to connect with your spouse or partner in a different way.”

Make use of the extra time

“There is a huge change to your life, and change takes time to adjust to, but we do this better when we have good support at hand, for example friends, other family members, rewarding hobbies, volunteering opportunities, or a fulfilling work role. Try and re-engage with personal interests, including sport and exercise, or some community activity you may have dropped. But don’t feel you need to say to yourself ‘I just need to get on with this’. That leads to self-judgement and personal shaming, which can fuel depression, and lead to you just plastering over the sadness.”

Make use of new technology

“There are also some useful apps out there: Calm, Headspace, and the My Possible Self app which is free. All help with self-care, including online video therapy can be useful if things continue to be difficult, or if you need more of a helping hand. 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 is change - and change brings newness, so this is a next stage in the life cycles. It’s a new and exciting chapter for both of you and the family, and the start of a brand new life stage.”



“Changing a difficult situation isn't always possible. So, accept what you cannot change and focus on the things you do have control over - such as regularly connecting with colleagues over video conferencing or online meetings.

Use music

“Put on headphones to listen to music can have many benefits, such as helping you relax and focus on something away from work and the outside world. Turn off rolling news and social media platforms such as Twitter, and just check in once a day. Stretch your legs and take a walk, even just to the garden, the kitchen or another room in your house before returning to your desk. Moving around and changing your environment, even slightly, can clear your mind and re-energise you.”

Coping with panic

Dr Donna Grant, consultant psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Chelmsford, offers some tips to help cope with panic at this time:

“Observe your thoughts and tell yourself that your mind is reacting to these thoughts and anxiety. These feelings are

normal - it's just the body's alarm system doing its job when it doesn't need to.

“Learn to control your breathing. People often hyperventilate during a panic attack. This means taking deeper breaths than normal which results in you feeling short of breath, causing a feeling of dizziness, disorientation and chest pains. By learning to slow your breathing down, you can help prevent the uncomfortable physical symptoms and stop the panic cycle. Try to get a slower and more stable breathing rhythm by breathing in for three seconds, holding your breath for two seconds, and then breathing out for three seconds. As you breathe, ensure that your stomach expands as you take each breath as this helps to ensure the breathing isn't shallow, which can add to the problem.

Learn to use positive coping statements

“When you are feeling anxious and panicky it can be helpful to have 'coping statements' which can be used to remind you that panic is not dangerous and isn't harmful.

Such statements could be:

- Panic is simply high levels of anxiety

- By remembering these symptoms are nothing more than anxiety, I can prevent further symptoms occurring

- My anxiety and panic will pass naturally given time. It doesn't last forever

Reminding yourself of these facts can help to prevent further panic cycles happening.

Keep a journal

Pamela Roberts, a Priory psychotherapist based at Priory’s Woking Hospital, adds that for those who might be self-isolating: “Ensure you are working in a well-ventilated room and following basic self-care, so healthy eating, sleep, lots of hydration, and try to keep to a routine. Set up a ‘buddy group’ with family or friends and regularly check in online or with Facetime.

“If you feel low, journaling can be a helpful way to unload emotions. Go with the flow. Tell yourself ‘what I am doing is enough’. Be good to yourself. If you have slept badly, accept you'll be in a low, more anxious mood. Your energy will be low. Try and relax and focus on positive things knowing that every effort is being made globally to bring this situation to a close, but it will take time. Being able to relax will help you through. When you're tense you tend to dwell on things and make them worse. If you are able, get into your garden and get daily doses of sunshine. Maybe look at some free online courses offered by the Open University. The mental health charity Mind has some very useful advice on self-isolating and your mental health. For support with grief, anxiety, or mental wellbeing, you can call or text an organisation like the Samaritans, or you can access therapy online with a trained therapist.”


Priory expert Steve Clarke, a psychotherapist and hospital director at the Priory¹s Life Works Hospital in Woking, Surrey, explains EMT: ‘Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) - Repetitive finger tapping can sometimes help to release negative emotions such as anxiety. It has been called a psychological version of acupuncture in that it involves making contact with a number of acupuncture points. The specific points to tap are the end-points of the major meridians (meridians are believed to be channels of subtle energy which flow through our body). So, whilst focusing on your negative emotion you tap on a meridian point (collarbone, under the arm and top of the head ­ try to avoid the face at these times) three to seven times, repeating your negative thought in your head. After each emotion, take a deep breath and exhale. Continue this until you feel calmer and relieved. When you feel more relieved, repeat the technique whilst you tap through a positive round, repeating more uplifting phrases.”


Dr Bijlani says: “Make time for a nourishing lunch with adequate hydration. Food and drink can greatly affect your physical and mental health. Stop working at the usual time you would if you had travelled to your office and then try and fit in some social calls to friends or family before you prepare your evening meal. Avoid drinking too much alcohol or eating unhealthy foods out of boredom. Try and keep to boundaries such as only drinking alcoholic beverages in limited quantities at the weekend. Having to spend endless time each day in our homes with others under the lockdown situation is certainly going to affect our relationships with them, regardless of whether they are our loved family members or not. Emotions can be “infectious” and if those around us aren’t able to keep calm and cope well, we could end up getting stressed, fed up, irritable or low ourselves. It’s important for each of us, where we can, to take responsibility for our own health so that we can help keep up a reasonable level of optimism and engender a healthy environment in our homes which we share with others. Try and do some things together, such as sharing the preparation and eating of meals and daily walks together while also maintaining respectful boundaries and giving each other space apart for private time alone. Work as a healthy community. Try and be sensitive, flexible and forgiving without losing your own sense of self or identity. The best way to keep your mood swings under control is to look after yourself by keeping to your usual routine of sleep, diet, exercise and other activities. If you have been prescribed medication for your mental health, then take it as advised.”


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About Priory and MEDIAN

About Priory

Priory is the UK’s leading independent provider of mental health services. We treat more than 70 conditions, including depression, anxiety, addictions and eating disorders, as well as children’s mental health, across our nationwide network of sites. We also support autistic adults and adults with a learning disability, Prader-Willi Syndrome and brain injuries, as well as older people, within our specialist residential care and supported living facilities – helping as many people as possible to live their lives.

Priory is part of the MEDIAN Group, one of Europe’s leading providers of high quality mental health and rehabilitation services. The MEDIAN Group comprises 290 facilities with 5,000 beds caring for 28,000 people in the UK, 120 facilities with 20,000 beds caring for around 250,000 patients in Germany, and 15 facilities with 2,000 beds caring for 13,000 people in Spain, with more than 29,000 employees overall.

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