Is This Empty Nest Syndrome?
This is the point in time you have been waiting for. The house is quiet, the kids are gone, and life is calm.
Gone are the day of chauffeuring the kids and their friends to the movies, the mall, and endless school activities. Now are the days of peaceful relaxation and a renewed focus on yourself and your interests.
It should be a time to celebrate, but why does reality seem so much different than what you expected? Could it be that what you are feeling is empty nest syndrome?
What Is Empty Nest Syndrome?
Empty nest syndrome is a condition commonly experienced by people when their children are grown and move out of the home. The drastic shift that comes when parenting roles and responsibilities change sparks the syndrome.
These are the most relevant facts about empty nest syndrome:
- Empty nest syndrome is a type of grief reaction. There is not a death, but it involves the loss of your identity as a parent.
- Women are more likely than men to be the primary caregiver, so they are more likely to experience empty nest syndrome.
- Though empty nest syndrome is not an officially recognized mental health disorder, the impact of the condition affects many.
- If not acknowledged and treated, empty nest syndrome can provoke other mental health conditions to emerge or worsen.
Signs and Symptoms of Empty Nest Syndrome
A great first step in treating any condition is improving your ability to accurately and effectively identify your status. Since empty nest syndrome is closely related to grief and loss, the conditions will share many similarities.
Empty nest syndrome is a commonly known condition, but people do not imagine that it will happen to them. Because of this, you might have been experiencing these signs and symptoms for a while without attributing them to empty nest.
Someone experiencing empty nest syndrome will feel:
- Increasing sadness, emptiness, and depression
- A lost and confused sensation
- Very bored and disinterested in normal activities
- Angry and frustrated at loved ones
- Restlessness and nervousness
- Preoccupied with thoughts of your child
With empty nest syndrome, you may notice a change in behaviors including:
- Increased tearfulness
- Physical or verbal aggression
- A lack of energy
- Spending more time alone
- Wasting time with meaningless activities
You may have every item on these lists or only a few as the grief and loss process is always unique and highly individualized. Spend less time comparing your experience to others and focusing on the intensity, frequency, and duration of your symptoms.
Who Is at Risk of Developing Empty Nest Syndrome?
Of course, not everyone will note symptoms of empty nest syndrome. The people at higher risk are ones that:
- See changes as scary and stressful rather than exciting
- Struggled with life transitions for themselves or their children
- Have problematic or unfulfilling relationships
- Lack rewarding outlets like work, hobbies, and recreational activities
- Received much of their self-esteem from being a parent
- Have a previous history of mental health conditions like depression and anxiety
Empty nest syndrome is often compounded by other life factors that occur around the same time as children leaving the home. This period of midlife is linked to other challenges like:
- Shifting work responsibilities, reentering the work world, or retiring
- Increasing the focus on your romantic relationships
- Caring for aging parents
- Coping with death of parents, spouse, or friends
- Addressing your physical health concerns including menopause
Tips for Couples Becoming Empty Nesters
Some people will be perfectly able to manage their empty nest syndrome effects without the need for outside intervention. Others will not be so fortunate.
No matter which side you fall own, it will be helpful to practice love, patience, and understanding with yourself to limit shame and guilt.
Plan and Prepare
If your youngest child is about to transition to a new stage in life, you might experience empty nest syndrome. Instead of passively waiting to be affected by symptoms, begin the planning and preparation now for what could happen in the future. In this situation, there is no harm in being too prepared.
Assess Your State
If you have already been noticing the changes in your mood, thoughts, and behaviors, congratulations. You have already started the treatment process. Unless you can know where you are at, you cannot move forward.
Talk About it
Now that you have some idea of your experience, tell as many trusted supports as you can. All mental health conditions breed a sense of secrecy that only makes situations worse.
By telling your loved ones, you reduce the stigma of empty nest syndrome. You also open yourself up to the possibility of gaining helpful insights from people with previous experience managing the condition.
Find New Directions
A central factor in coping with empty nest syndrome is having other activities and interests available to fill in the gap left by parenting. Some mistakenly try to maintain a tight grasp on their children, but this only damages the relationship and avoids the real issue.
Make it a point to rediscover old or experiment with new hobbies. When empty nest syndrome presents, it is the perfect opportunity to learn a new language, join a team, improve your physical fitness, travel to places you've always wanted to visit or take a cooking class.
Empty nest syndrome worsens if you stay stuck in the past and improves when you focus on the promise of the future. With enough time and support, you can adapt to your new role in life. Perhaps these years will be your best years.