5 Signs and Symptoms of Empty Nest Syndrome

It seems like just yesterday you held your newborn baby in your arms and promised to love and take care of them forever. Now your last child is leaving home, and you’re not sure what to do with yourself. It’s a normal feeling, and there is a common name for it: empty nest syndrome.

Feelings of loss, sadness, anxiety, grief, and fear are common among parents experiencing empty nest syndrome, and the condition affects both men and women. Here are the five most common signs of this syndrome.

1

A Loss of Purpose

Empty nest syndrome is a real problem.
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Your days were once filled with soccer practice, piano lessons, parent-teacher conferences, playdates, carpooling, and birthday parties. Now the hustle and bustle of raising kids is a thing of the past. Despite your friends, family, work, and other activities, your days may still feel a bit empty. 

This feeling is common for parents whose children have recently left the nest. Letting go of the active, day-to-day duties of parenting can be a tough transition to make, especially if you largely defined yourself by your parenting role while your child lived at home.

The good news is that after an adjustment period, you can find new purpose in your life. This is particularly true if you use the time to pick up a new hobby or tackle a new challenge. 

As you adjust, it's normal to feel a sense of grief as you come to terms with the fact that a chapter of your life has ended. Just don't lose sight of the new chapter that's beginning—in your child's life as well as your own.

2

Frustration Over Lack of Control

Pensive older Black woman clutching pillow

 JGI/Jamie Grill / Getty Images

For years, you had quite a bit of control over scheduling your children’s lives—but that has now changed. With your child being on their own, you won't know as many details of their day as you used to.

The lack of control over when your child is attending class, going to work, going on a date, or hanging out with friends can be frustrating. You might also feel a bit left out when you don't know the details of your child's day-to-day schedule.

Avoid becoming a helicopter parent, and don't use guilt trips on your children to convince them to keep you more involved in their lives.

Research on the helicopter parenting style—characterized by over-involvement and "hovering" over a child—has shown that it backfires, actually producing a lower sense of well-being in college-age students.

Although you have the best intentions, your adult child may resent what they see as an intrusion into their newly independent life. Even if they welcome your guidance and attention, too much checking in and giving direction will hinder your young adult from learning to make good decisions and handle life on their own.

Remember that your child is using the skills you have taught them to begin navigating their own life, and this is an exciting time for them. Try to have confidence in their ability to learn and thrive independently.

Your child still needs you and always will, but your role now should be one of an advisor rather than a constant source of instruction or correction in their life.

Instead of trying to have control over the details of your child's life, focus on coping with your discomfort in healthy ways. Try one of these ideas:

  • Pursuing interests you didn't have time for when your kids were at home
  • Taking a class on an interesting topic
  • Reconnecting with friends
  • Learning a new skill

With time, having an empty nest will get easier. You'll get used to your child being in charge of their own life and you can begin to develop a new sense of normal in your life.

3

Emotional Distress

stressed adult woman with headache

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If you burst into tears watching sad commercials or driving down the road, know that this is normal. You're in an emotional place right now, and it's not surprising that situations or comments that you normally wouldn't be affected by become a much bigger deal.

Becoming an empty nester can stir up a variety of emotions. You may be feeling:

  • Sad that your child has grown up
  • Angry at yourself for not being more available to them in the past
  • Nervous about the state of your marriage
  • Scared that you're growing older
  • Frustrated that you're not where you imagined you'd be at this phase in your life

Whatever you feel is OK. Trying to deny your pain or suppressing your sadness won't make it go away, and could even make it worse by causing it to spring up at the wrong time or place.

Allow yourself to feel whatever emotions come up, and remember that emotions are not right or wrong. Rather, they are a reflection of the situation you're facing.

Fully experiencing uncomfortable emotions, for as long as it takes until they subside on their own, can actually help those feelings run their course and fade away more quickly.

4

Marital Stress

upset woman with man in background

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In the process of raising a child, many couples set their relationship aside and make the family revolve around the kids. If you've spent years neglecting your marriage, you might find your relationship needs some work once the kids are gone.

You may not know what to do with yourselves as a couple if your activities always revolved around kids' school and activities. Getting to know one another again can feel like a bit of a challenge. 

Also, some couples find they react differently to becoming empty nesters. If one of you is adjusting better or appreciating life without kids in the home more than the other, you may experience more tension in the relationship. Make it a goal to get reacquainted to life as a twosome.

Look at this time as an opportunity to reconnect with your partner and rediscover what led you to ​fall in love in the first place.

5

Anxiety About Your Children

Caucasian woman sitting in armchair holding legs

Jamie Grill / Getty Images

Whether your child has gone to college or simply moved into their own place, it’s normal to worry about how they are faring after they've left the nest. What isn’t normal, however, is to feel constant anxiety about how your child is getting by.

Checking in multiple times a day or investing hours into checking your child's social media accounts won't be helpful to either of you. Avoid calling to ask them if they are remembering to floss or to nag them about doing their homework.

This is your child's opportunity to spread their wings and practice using all those skills you taught them while they lived at home. 

Balance your desire to check in with your child's need for privacy and create a plan for how you’ll stay connected. You might set up a weekly phone call, communicate frequently via text or email, or have a weekly dinner date if your child lives nearby. 

A Word From Verywell

With 18 or more years under your belt as a parent, this can be a scary and emotional time in your life. Rest assured, the feelings you are experiencing now will fade as you grow accustomed to a quieter house and a life more focused on your own desires. 

If you feel like your life no longer has meaning or you think your depression or anxiety might be worse than what’s normal, seek professional help.

If you or a loved one are struggling with depression or anxiety, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

Surrounding yourself with people who know how you feel—whether it’s a support group or friends going through the same process—can also help you get through this difficult time. You have done your job as a parent, and now it’s time to enjoy life as a parent of adult children, with all the freedom and opportunities that it can provide.

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Article Sources
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  1. Bougea A, Despoti A, Vasilopoulos E. Empty-nest-related psychosocial stress: Conceptual issues, future directions in economic crisis. Psychiatriki. 2019;30(4):329-338. doi:10.22365/jpsych.2019.304.329

  2. Kouros CD, Pruitt MM, Ekas NV, Kiriaki R, Sunderland M. Helicopter parenting, autonomy support, and college students' mental health and well-being: The moderating role of sex and ethnicityJ Child Fam Stud. 2017;26:939-949. doi:10.1007/s10826-016-0614-3

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