“Empty Nest Syndrome” is something most of us have probably heard of, and have a general idea of what it’s about. But the details of this condition are less well known, and the treatments even more so.
Empty Nest Syndrome, despite its name, is not a clinically recognized condition. Rather, it’s a colloquial term used to describe a more general sort of depression that comes with loss when it occurs after ‘losing’ a child when they move out. But it’s not really about losing the child, and to understand how to treat this, we need to understand exactly what sort of loss is being grieved.
Unlike the death of a loved one, Empty Nest Syndrome isn’t really about losing the child – the parent can still call or visit them as they please, and may even still be part of their lives. The thing that is lost when a child leaves home as an adult is actually the parent’s sense of identity as a mother or father.
Now, not all parents will develop this condition when a child leaves, and those parents who do seem to have some things in common. Parents who spend more time at home being a caregiver tend to be more at risk for this syndrome than those who divide their time between a job and/or hobbies outside of that role as well. People who generally have more trouble with change also tend to be more likely to suffer from this condition, and understandably so. When a child is such a big part of your life, suddenly having them not there can end up leaving you feeling a loss of purpose.
Research suggests that this condition tends to affect women more so than men, and while part of that might be cultural, the fact that many women often find their children “leaving the nest” around the time menopause tends to hit certainly doesn’t help. The grief one experiences in empty nest syndrome can be compounded by other significant changes happening at the same time – doubly so for those who just tend to deal with change more poorly than others.
Because Empty Nest Syndrome is not an officially recognized clinical condition, there isn’t an agreed upon set of symptoms for diagnosis. However, if you or a loved one notice symptoms of depression occurring shortly after a child moves out, consider trying some of the following:
- Regain your sense of self. If Empty Nest Syndrome is largely about a loss of identity, it’s important for a person to find a new role outside of parenthood to explore and redefine themselves in the absence of a child to care for. This can also be a useful preventative measure if you know you might be at risk for developing empty nest syndrome; if your child will be moving out soon, take the time to invest some energy in your hobbies, or find new ones if you don’t have much outside of your caregiver role at the moment.
- Stay in contact with your child. As mentioned before, the child being ‘lost’ here is not really lost at all, and that fact should be fully taken advantage of. While you do want to let them have their space, it can be useful for both of you to have occasional chats on the phone (or in person, if possible) to check up on things. This interaction also provides the parents with the opportunity to give advice regarding any number of challenges their children will now inevitably be facing by living on their own. This brings in another important point: you don’t have to stop being a mother or father completely. You can still be a part of the child’s life, even if not in the same way you were before.
- Seek professional help if needed. If things seem to be getting out of hand, seek out a therapist that can help you work through some of the more severe symptoms of your grief and help you get your life back on track.
When one chapter of your life closes, another one starts. Don’t let your child be the only one starting a new journey in life!