When the last child is about to leave home—or he or she has already moved you—you might experience some mixed emotions. ‘Empty nest syndrome’ isn’t a clinical diagnosis, but it does indicate that the parents or guardians are significantly impacted by feelings of loss and sadness when their last child leaves home. Clearly some people feel this more acutely than others.

Under normal circumstance empty nest is not the end—it’s the beginning of a new phase in the parent–child relationships.

Even when parents encourage their children to explore their independence—their absence may be felt on a regular basis. The companionship is gone as is the structure that had been in place for all the years prior.

There may also be intense feelings of concern or worry about a child’s safety after they leave home—particularly if there is reason to believe that poor choices are likely to be made. There are of course those who will worry or be anxious regardless of whether or not they have reason to be—simply because they are entering unknown territory.

Parents with only one child or those who have made child rearing their singular focus may have an especially hard time adjusting to an empty nest.

Current Research

In the past, research indicated that parents in the throes of empty nest syndrome experiencing a profound sense of loss could be vulnerable to depression, alcoholism, identity crisis and marital conflicts.

More recent studies paint quite a different picture. http://www.apa.org/monitor/apr03/pluses.aspx While researchers acknowledge that most parents do feel a sense of loss when their nests are empty, they are also finding that this period can be one of increased life satisfaction and improved relationships. In contrast to what most college age students express about the devastation their parents must be feeling after they leave home, psychologist Karen L. Fingerman, PhD http://sites.utexas.edu/adultfamilyproject/publications/ points out that in reality many parents find this time to be liberating and less stressful time of life.

Some findings even challenge the belief that an empty nest is hardest on women. According to Helen DeVries’s research, an associate professor of psychology at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., it appears as if it is the men who struggle more when children leave home. The men who have worked especially feel the loss over the lost opportunity—having not spent enough time with their children when they growing up. That said, overall the studies are beginning to show that many parents gain a new lease on life when their nests become empty.

Some Benefits to Empty Nest

  • More personal and professional freedom
  • Less work and family conflicts
  • New opportunity to reconnect with partners
  • More time to connect with friends
  • Rekindled interests put on hold can be explored

So What’s Changed?

A great deal has changed since the idea of an empty-nest syndrome originally surfaced. An unprecedented number of mothers now work outside the home, giving them an identity beyond that of parent. They can ramp up on the job or pursue travel, interest, friendships, adventures they’ve not had the time or flexibility for in the past.

Also, FaceTime, Skype, inexpensive long-distance calls, e-mail, lower airfares have all made it easier to stay in touch with the children once the leave home. Contact can be made with ease and frequency—so unlike twenty or thirty years ago keeping in touch is highly accessible.

Perhaps the empty nest syndrome never existed in the way it was portrayed in the literature. Parents miss their children, but, they also enjoy having more personal freedom. This can be a wonderful time to rekindle intimate relationships, build friendships that have long been on the back burner and pursue goals and interests in a way that has not been possible when the children were home.

The Joy of Watching the Successful Launch

Parents also derive a great deal of joy and satisfaction from seeing their child or children embark upon a path toward successful adulthood. And when the stressors of everyday life together are taken out of the equation the parent–child relationship improves for many after the next is empty. This is especially true after a stormy adolescence or entry into early adulthood—which is often the case and hopefully within the range of normal limits.

Empty Nest… A New Phase

Under normal circumstance empty nest is not the end—it’s the beginning of a new phase in the parent–child relationships. That is, unless of course there are disturbances in either the parent or child—which can lead to impaired next steps.

Most often the relationships between parent and child are ‘healthy enough” or “good enough.” It is beyond the scope of this article to explore the times when this is not the case. I can only say getting help or seeking some kind of intervention would be wise if the aftermath of the empty nest seems devastating or chronically a source of great pain or suffering.

Ideally the parent–child relationship will deepen and mature over time as it becomes more emotionally stable and meaningful to both the parents and child or children.

What are you experiencing now that your nest is empty?

I’d love to hear your thoughts or story about how you’re navigating through this next chapter of life.