How to Survive the Empty Nest Syndrome

The kids are gone; now what?


By: Maria Alejandra Pulgar



Para leer en Español

The work of the parents never ends, however, when the last one of the children leaves home to go to college or to pursue their own path in life, the void they leave in the life of their parents oftentimes causes what has been dubbed “Empty Nest Syndrome”.

There are strong emotions involved in this life event, such as sadness, loneliness, and anxiety in certain cases, and in others, a sense of relief, accomplishment, and satisfaction. The first set of emotions and the behaviors they cause in the parents are part of what has been called Empty Nest Syndrome, or ENS, even though it has not been included as a medical or health condition in the Manual of Mental Disorders.

ENS is very common among parents or caregivers, and according to a study in the Journal of Psychiatry, it affects about 10 to 20% of parents, with a higher incidence in mothers than fathers, especially when parents have been “closely involved in the raising process and the life of the children”.

The manifestations of the syndrome include sadness and grief; isolation and worry about the child’s well-being; a sense of loss of identity and purpose; and difficulty adjusting to the change in lifestyle. In addition, if parents are also going through life changes (menopause/andropause, retirement, downsizing houses, separations, etc.), it may become an overwhelming and long-lasting situation that escalates to more complex emotional conditions like depression or clinical anxiety.

Parents or caregivers who feel confident that they have prepared their children with the tools needed to successfully perform in their adult lives are less prone to present ENS symptoms that linger for a long time, are able to overcome the natural attachment of parenthood, and actually feel the joy of seeing their children conduct their own lives outside of their “nest.”


Is ENS a real thing?

Temporary feelings of sadness when children move out, are a natural part of life. The median duration has been estimated around two or three months. However, if they linger and deepen to the point of affecting the life of the parent, experts affirm it is likely the person has a pre-existing underlying emotional condition that needs to be assessed.

Up until the mid-20th century, families used to live nearby or even together in multigenerational households. As society and values evolved, families became smaller and children began leaving their homes to go further their studies or pursue a livelihood of their own. That is when ENS begins to be considered as a stage within family life, especially for mothers.

A 1977 study by the American Psychological Association popularized the ENS concept, suggesting that “parents, mostly mothers, tend to fall into existential despair once they no longer had children around to dote on.” On the other hand, a 2016 study in Canada determined that “the occurrence of an empty nest in contemporary family life may not be permanent” as boomerang children return home later on, hence dispelling “the myth of the empty nest syndrome as a pervasive and predominantly negative experience for parents (especially mothers).”


Get ready and come out triumphant.

The first step to ensure a smooth transition into a childless family is getting the children ready to fend for themselves “out in the wild world”. Assigning them household chores, teaching them to cook, clean, do laundry, and balance a budget, in addition to their academic preparation, gives parents peace of mind knowing their children will be able to take care of themselves when they leave the house.

But children are not the only ones who need to be prepared; parents need to take time to explore activities that will fill the time they spent taking care of their children. Taking care of themselves, their physical and mental health, and in the case of couples, the health of their relationship; reaching out to friends or family, joining other parents in the same stage, and even looking for mental health support during that period if needed are important steps that can help improve the chances to come out triumphant of the transition.


Boomerang children: be prepared. Kids may come back

“Adulting” does not always come easy and sometimes children between the ages of 18 to 34 (according to a Pew Research report) need to return to the nest, just as their parents were getting used to their “new normal” without them at home. Those kids who come back home for renewed support are called “boomerang children”.

Those renewed temporary living arrangements come with a whole set of implications, as children have gotten used to living on their own terms and might not be as willing as before to follow the rules of their parent’s household. It is a period of readjustment that has to be dealt with, with love and constant communication, which will ensure that living with these adults that you raised is a satisfactory experience for everyone.

It is likely that if they came back is first of all because they find in your home a safe space and they are going through a transition themselves. Supporting them in their decisions, listening to their doubts and worries, setting clear rules of coexistence together, and giving them a sense of self-worth will allow them to bounce back and assert their independence again soon.

The empty nest period implies a transition and adjustment for everyone in the family and represents a unique time of growth and discovery, for parents to explore their own interests, couples to reconnect, and children to apply all the skills they learned while growing up. When parents “believe in the products” they have created and see them succeed, that sense of accomplishment helps them make the most of this new phase in their lives.


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