Back to School: Preparing Mom and Dad – Empty Nest Syndrome

If your last child is all grown up and about to leave home — or he or she has already moved out — you might be experiencing some mixed emotions. Empty nest syndrome is a feeling of sadness that occurs when a parent or parents are "launching" their only or last child. This can result in depression and a loss of purpose for parents, since the departure of their children from "the nest" leads to significant adjustments in parents' lives. Symptoms may include:

  • Depression.
  • Sadness.
  • Guilt.
  • Regret.
  • Alienation from peers.
  • Worry.

The most vulnerable parents are those dealing with additional, concurrent stressors such as difficult life changes or circumstances (e.g., retirement, loss, fragile marriage). Stay-at-home parents are the most susceptible to empty nest syndrome. Women are more likely than men to be affected. Often, when children leave the home, mothers are going through other significant life events as well, such as menopause or caring for elderly parents.

The last few months before a child leaves home are often characterized by intense logistical preparation, which abruptly stops when the child moves out. The change of pace is dramatic, sudden and often difficult to manage. Preparing yourself in advance of the day your children will leave home can help you ease through this transition. For those whose child is launching next fall, you have plenty of time to prepare yourself and your child. For those who are launching now, it’s not too late to act.

Some basic strategies for overcoming empty nest syndrome are:

  • Pursue your own hobbies and interests in your newly found spare time.
  •  Consider participating in meaningful volunteer activities.
  • Keep in touch with your child. Technology can help you stay connected when used in moderation. Follow your child's lead.
  • Discuss your grief with loved ones, friends or family.
  • Rediscover your love life – now you can take the time to focus on your relationship with your spouse or start dating again.
  • Be careful not to project your anxieties onto your child to avoid burdening your child.

Experts have advised that overwhelmed parents keep a journal of their feelings, go back to work (if they were full-time parents), and seek support from a professional if other strategies aren’t working.

Psychology Today recently published an article, written as a letter from the perspective of a young woman heading off to school to her parents that may resonate with parents during this time. It outlines all of these issues and adds the important perspective of the launching child. This is the article:

Dear Parents, It's Time to Let Them Fly the Nest
Advice for parents with college bound kids.

It’s normal to feel a sense of loss as your children leave home, but most parents find their new normal after about six months. If that sadness persists, it’s time to seek professional help. The team of experts connected to Cone Health Behavioral Health work to support patients through difficult changes or seasons in life. Our staff is committed to providing each patient with confidential care that fits his or her specific lifestyle.

Spokesperson Background:

David Gutterman, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and the clinical director of LeBauer Behavioral Medicine, and a member of Cone Health Medical Group. He completed undergraduate studies at Tulane University and earned a Master of Arts in marriage and family therapy from the University of Houston. Dr. Gutterman earned his Doctor of Philosophy in clinical psychology from Northwestern University.

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