How to Handle Tough Feelings About Having an Empty Nest
The kids have grown up and left home, maybe to start college or to move to another town. Now what?
There’s a huge range of what parents may feel when anticipating or experiencing an empty nest, says Roni Cohen-Sandler, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist who splits her time between Norwalk, Connecticut, and Los Angeles and is the author of the book Anything But My Phone, Mom!: Raising Emotionally Resilient Daughters in the Digital Age.
Some parents feel a sense of relief or excitement for this new phase in life. They may feel as if they have more time to do the things they enjoy, like traveling, socializing, or practicing a hobby.
Others aren’t so quick to embrace the transition. Instead, you may find them in one of those now empty bedrooms, cuddled up with their kid’s pillow. They might even use the term “empty nest syndrome” to describe how they’re feeling.
Trouble Dealing with an Empty Nest?
Any parent can struggle with strong emotions when this time comes. For example, they may experience feelings of empty-nest loneliness or low mood, or they may wrestle with their self-esteem as their identity and role as a parent shifts a bit.
Anna Hoffman, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist in Los Angeles, says that some will grieve deeply, worry often, and struggle to adjust to this shift in roles, relationships, and identity.
“For those empty nesters who are having trouble functioning as they usually do in areas like work, relationships, and self-care, I recommend working with a licensed therapist who can be a companion through the grief and adjustment of this stage of life,” Hoffman says.
A mental health professional can help a parent effectively manage their emotions and to handle any uneasiness or apprehension, and is especially important if there’s so much distress that it interferes with daily life.
“Although this transition can be challenging and evoke uncomfortable feelings, tackling and working through them can be extremely liberating and point to new, gratifying avenues,” Cohen-Sandler says.
5 Common Empty-Nest Feelings
There’s no one way to feel as a child decides to leave home, and you might find you have mixed emotions. But there are some common feelings empty nesters face. Here are five of them, along with strategies experts say may help you cope.
1. Missing a Sense of Purpose
Some parents begin to question their purpose in life when there are no children at home to cook, clean, and care for. Their children may have been their priority, and their days were filled with homework help, soccer games, playdates, carpooling, and birthday parties. Now, they’re left wondering how to fill their time and how to find meaning in their lives.
What to do about it: Hoffman says it's important to sustain other important relationships with family members and friends and to participate in activities that bring personal gratification. For example, you may choose to:
- Do activities that allow you to connect with people, animals, or nature
- Become involved in your community
- Find pleasurable ways to move your body
- Seek out new experiences
- Learn or enhance a skill
- Find ways to appreciate art and beauty
“These pursuits may help you reconnect with or discover new parts of yourself that were muted when your children were younger,” Hoffman says.
2. Guilt or Self-Doubt
Some parents berate themselves for feeling the way they do. They may compare themselves to others who seem to be handling their empty nest “better” and wonder why they simply can’t get past the sadness and yearning for a full nest.
What to do about it: Cohen-Sandler says practicing self-compassion and self-care—taking good care of your body, mind, and spirit— is the best way to stop comparing yourself to others. Activities such as exercise, yoga, Pilates, and meditation may help.
3. Fear of Loss
Hoffman says another common concern empty nesters have is wondering how they'll connect with their child when they’re not living at home. They worry that their children will move on with their own lives and that they won’t have as close a relationship as they once did.
What to do about it: Have conversations with your child about how they want to connect now that they’re older. Helpful questions might sound like “What are some good times in your schedule for a phone call?” or “How would you feel about a visit next month?”
Still, it’s important to know when to pull back, too. “Honor your child’s boundaries around communication and visiting,” Hoffman says. Exactly what type of relationship boundaries you and your child have after they move out can depend on a variety of factors, including your culture, your schedules, and how far apart you live.
4. Lack of Control
What if your adult child forgets to take their medication? What if they don’t wake up for class or work? What if they hang out with the “wrong” people? Some parents who’ve been very involved in their children’s lives have a hard time letting go of the control (or perceived control) they once had. They worry that, without their reminders and watchful eye, their children could go down the wrong path.
What to do about it: Remember, you’ve done your job getting them to this point, and it’s important to start letting go. In fact, too much checking in can hinder a person from learning to make good choices, says Frieda Birnbaum, Ph.D., a New York City–based research psychologist.
“Have confidence in your child to learn how to navigate their own life,” Birnbaum says. “This is the only way they will learn. Being a helicopter parent backfires. Research suggests that it produces a lower sense of well‑being in college-age students.”
Worried your child will trip up without you there to catch their fall? Birnbaum says it’s important to let them know it’s okay to be wrong so they can grow from the experience and try new challenges.
“Teach them to keep trying to solve a hard problem even if they can’t see the end solution,” she says. “Mistakes help the brain to grow.” If you know your child is open to new challenges, let that inspire you as you prepare for your own challenge as an empty nester.
5. Missing Out Because You’re Still Caregiving
Some parents may enter the empty-nest phase while also caring for another family member, such as a parent, sibling, or partner. Even if they were counting down the days until their kids left home, now they’re not able to embrace the freedom they were looking forward to because of these other responsibilities. Hoffman says these parents sometimes describe the frustration and disappointment of not being able to embrace their newly empty nest as an opportunity for more self-nurturance.
What to do about it: “When I work with clients in this situation, we pay particular attention to ‘caring for the caregiver,’ or finding ways to nurture agency, connection, and vitality for this person who never got a break from caregiving,” Hoffman says. “Even when the empty nest is not what you expected, it offers an opportunity to reflect and take steps in valued directions.”
Embracing the New Nest
No matter what your new nest looks like, the good news is that, with time, those troubling empty-nest feelings often wane. Many parents find they enjoy this new chapter in their lives in ways they never imagined.
“Personally, as well as professionally, I have found that being an empty nester is rewarding in unexpected ways,” Cohen-Sandler says. “My relationships with my ‘kids,’ now in their mid-to-late 30s, are evolving to be ever-more enjoyable. My husband and I adore these adult-to-adult relationships as well as spending time with our kids and their contemporaries. Being at this stage of life has brought wisdom that our kids appreciate.”
She says the key, however, is being able to adjust the parental roles accordingly. “We empower our kids’ independence and act like consultants who give opinions only when asked.”
Many parents agree that the goal of parenting is to help kids grow into healthy adults who can go out into the world and live independently, so having an empty nest is a sign of a goal achieved. But how it feels can be another matter altogether.
So, although you may still occasionally get weepy at the grocery when you pass the granola bars you used to buy your son, or you crawl into the bed in your daughter’s old room and just let it all out, most parents will find joy again in their empty nest. It may never be the same, but it can still be full of love, fulfillment, and memories in the making.
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