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Overcoming Empty Nest Syndrome: How to Unruffle Your Feathers and Spread Your Wings

You raised your children to be independent. Still, there’s a part of you that doesn’t want to let go. It’s natural to have mixed emotions when children leave the nest. After all, it’s a big deal and your life will change in dramatic ways.

While most people accept this inevitable change and enjoy their new freedoms, others feel overwhelming sadness and inability to transition. Their world feels empty and they lose their compass. This phenomenon is commonly known as “empty nest syndrome.” According to the Mayo Clinic, it’s not a clinical diagnosis, but if unresolved, can lead to an identity crisis, depression, and marital discord.


The Need to Feel Validated

Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor Victoria Fleming says parents who have built their lives around their child – their social lives, their vacations, knowing their child’s every move – receive validation through their success as parents. When their children leave home, these parents face disruption in virtually every aspect of their daily lives. “The ‘helicopter parents,’ who hover constantly, have really enmeshed with their children as no generation before ever has.”

Dr. Fleming, author of "You Complete Me and Other Myths that Destroy Happily Ever After," says that despite the stereotypical empty nest mom, today’s more engaged dads can be just as devastated. “They may be less heart-on-the-sleeve about it, but they do feel it more than ever before.”

Uncovering a Bad Marriage

When one parent can’t cope, it can put an enormous strain on the marriage. “It may leave the partner feeling rejected, but it’s not likely a new feeling if only one parent was so bonded so as to be devastated,” says Fleming. “Chances are, there were already boundary issues – detachment, and perhaps even estrangement – between the spouses before the kids flew the coop. Now that they are alone, the kids no longer provide ‘cover’ from a bad marriage. It’s just you, your spouse, and the HUGE chasm between you...”

The Other Kids

The marriage isn’t the only relationship that suffers, cautions Fleming. “As for other kids, let's say child #1 leaves and now child #2 is home. This is a HUGE adjustment for child #2, and in some ways the reasons are similar to the spousal issues. Child #2 was probably quite accustomed to ‘life in the shadow’ of #1, perhaps enjoying a bit of leniency or even neglect by the parents. Suddenly, ALL EYES ARE ON #2 and he/she is going to have to get used to the spotlight. Grades, activities, friends, may now get double the scrutiny as before, and then some.”


Parental anxiety may stem from a fear that your child isn’t quite ready to leave, so don’t wait until your kids are packing their bags before you think about the changes to come. Fleming says parents can have healthy boundaries and allow the naturally-occurring individuation process to unfold throughout the teen years. Specifically, you can:

  • Let teens take more responsibility for grades and part-time jobs. Help them figure out how to handle the money they earn.

  • When kids have problems, encourage them to find solutions and allow them to endure the consequences.

  • Give teens responsibility for household chores like laundry and food preparation.

You’ll probably feel better about the transition if you believe your child is self-sufficient.


Fleming offers these practical tips for coping with the empty nest:

  • If your child left for school, get vacations and parents' weekends on the calendar. 

  • Try to connect with other empty nesters. Chances are you have developed friendships with your kid's friends' parents. See if you have anything in common with any of them besides your kids!

  • If you are fortunate to have living parents, spend some time connecting with them. It might be a good time to heal some old wounds related to your departure from their nest

  • .Look through your local calendar of events or park district program guide and find something to do for yourself. Take up a new hobby!Look for ways to volunteer in the community to fill in the hours you now have available.

  • Reconnect with your spouse. An empty house can be an adventurous place.

Some people simply cannot find a way to move forward. If that’s the case, a good therapist can provide some unbiased support. Signs you may need professional counseling include:

  • Inability to focus at work

  • Short temper around those closest to you

  • Sleep disturbances

  • Lack of interest in activities you used to enjoy

  • Obsessing about your child to the point of neglecting others

  • Constant contact: texting and calling your child every day

  • Friends fading away

  • Hurt feelings when you get the “gotta go” from your child

When children leave home it’s not about rejection. They are doing what we all must do. Celebrate their independence – and your own. Be there for them when they need you, but embrace the empty nest and all it represents. Seize the opportunities before you. It could very well be that the best is yet to be.

References: Empty Nest Syndrome, Mayo Clinic; Victoria Fleming, PhD, North Shore Wellness Services, Ltd.

Ann Pietrangelo is the author of "No More Secs!"She is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and writes for sites all around the web.


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