What exactly is empty nest syndrome? Well, it does mean different things to different people and can have varying degrees of emotional impact over different time frames. But, in essence, empty nest syndrome refers to a type of grief that many parents experience when their offspring first moves out of the family home.
The ‘grief’ element of empty nest syndrome often goes unnoticed, unrecognised, and overlooked as a problem, because an adult child moving out of the family home is seen as a perfectly normal and emotionally healthy event...which it is.
Generally speaking, it’s recognised that mothers can be harder hit by such a phenomena – which is not to belittle or undermine the fathers’ feelings – but as they are often the primary caregivers for the majority of the child’s life, a mother may encounter additional negative feelings in the form of a loss of motherhood thus compounding their sense of grief. Many mothers may have dedicated over 20 years to bringing up their children, and often see motherhood as their main role. This is still true regardless of career and even includes working professional mothers.
Setting the scene
In my experience, those who suffer most from empty nest syndrome tend to have certain things in common – they tend to consider ‘change’ as a stressful thing rather than refreshing, exciting or challenging. They have often found that even sending their children off to school years ago at the very start was an emotional experience.
And the most common trait? Parents who worry that their children simply are nowhere near ready to take on adult responsibilities. What about personal finance, laundry, cooking, cleaning, being on time, avoiding dangers, avoiding negative influences…the list is long and exhaustive.
So, let’s flip this situation 180 degrees. What are the benefits? What do kids, our fledgling adults make of it? Could your own personal relationship even improve?
The potential benefits to your children leaving home are numerous. Firstly, you’ll get ‘your’ home back and you’ll certainly get more time to yourself, naturally, depending on your situation this may be perceived as a good or bad thing for you.
Many couples recognise that they need to work harder to reconnect with their spouses, not that there is marital strife or underlying issues. Also, that their sole focus for most of the duration of their relationship so far has often centred around nurturing and developing their children.
Their roles and goals were defined by a parental necessity, but now this new and somewhat empty void can throw a light on their relationship and how they reconnect and move forward together.
I do think that the young people who have moved away probably do think about their parents, they often feel homesick and worry about their place in this suddenly very big world. However, I suspect they don’t consider at length or worry too much about their parents’ welfare half as much as we think they do.
So much has changed in recent years; communication technology, social apps, cheaper and easier air travel (naturally, this only applies under normal circumstances), support and openness around feelings... Much has changed since the concept of empty nest syndrome first became ‘a thing’. So, staying in-touch has actually got much easier once they have moved out.
In the past, parents would simply drop off their kid at the airport or deliver the child to college, say goodbye, and say they’d see us at the next major holiday. Not so much now. For some parents, the empty nest isn’t an issue, simply because they create a ‘virtual nest’ online. This can be a double-edged sword though, as parents can be tempted to try and keep micro-contact with their kids. I always stress that striking balance is the key here.
People do miss their children a great deal, but there’s always an upside. Most parents say that they are enjoying the greater freedom they now have. They tell me that they now have more time to pursue their own hobbies, interests, and personal goals now that their children have left home. What’s more, they aren’t feeling guilty, awkward, or wrong for doing it.
The half empty nest
We should also consider where siblings of the recently moved out fit into this new order of things. It often depends on how many children remain and what their age range is. They’ll also be coming to terms with a new regime at home and sometimes they’ll be feeling overlooked and sometimes they’ll be empowered. They’ll feel like they’ve moved from the back seat to the front seat. Their status and pecking order will have changed. Yet, they’ll still feel sad and slightly at odds with their life-long sibling not being around.
So, if one child has moved out and you still have others living at home, I suggest planning in advance for when your nest will be completely empty of all children. Even small changes you make will mean it will come as less of a shock when your final child eventually moves out. It’s all too easy for parents to overlook their remaining children’s feelings when their brother or sister has moved out. They are often found to be presenting as happy and feeling quite the opposite.
My advice is for parents to try and aim to be more proud than sad. The sense of pride and achievement that seeing your child start down the path toward successful adulthood is immeasurable. Parents should strive to focus on the joy and successes of their parental endeavours and not how bad or lonely they are feeling. This is really hard, but by focusing on the positive, the negative will lose its power over you.
Many people have commented that they send away the child and who returns after a few years of study is an adult. Console yourself that you’re going to have a more emotionally meaningful, more mature, and deeper relationship with them to look forward to in the future.
There are positive outcomes of an empty nest; it gives you a chance to improve and develop relationships. You will get to spend far more time with friends and family members.
There’s plenty more freedom at your fingertips, you can think about those trips (again, when things improve globally), those interests and groups you’ve promised to get involved with, things that were impossible when you had children around.
You’ll get more time, and how you use it is up to you. Reflect and relax, or attempt to improve yourself – your choice, your goals. My advice, don’t dwell on it, just go for it.
What about the fathers’ feelings?
A lot has been said and written about how a mother feels about the terrible transition when her babies have gone. I find that mothers and fathers anticipate and experience their kids’ departures very differently. I’m not so sure that men don’t have just as much of a hard time when their children leave home, they just experience it in a different way.
I avoid any stereotypes or clichéd observations in my work, but parental roles are generally static across society, and I still find men do not talk about preparing for the change when their children leave home. This change is a major life event and men can be less prepared for the emotional impact of the change.
As a result, I find that fathers are far more likely to express some level of regret over lost opportunities, and seek to be much more involved in the children’s day-to-day lives after they leave home. So, come on dads, whatever the age of your kids, they won’t be around forever – don’t lay down the foundation of regret. Get involved. You won’t regret it.
Is it possible to prevent empty nest syndrome completely? It’s all about preparation.
Parents should fully prepare themselves well in advance of their last child leaving home; it doesn’t need to come as a full shock, if you have a forward strategy in place.
Look forward positively to new opportunities in your personal and professional life.
Russell Hemmings is a Dubai-based life coach and cognitive behavioural hypnotherapist (russellhemmings.co.uk).