What is Empty Nest Syndrome? A Family Therapist Explains Symptoms and How to Cope

It’s basically the natural order of things: If you have children, you typically then raise them until they’re able to go through the world on their own (or, you know, until they hit 18 and move away to college).

It’s hard work, spending nearly two decades (and sometimes more) teaching them right from wrong—but many parents find that the hardest part of mother or fatherhood actually occurs when their children grow up and fly the coop, so to say, leaving parents with the often-dreaded “empty nest syndrome.”

But what exactly is empty nest syndrome—and is it truly something that’s easily diagnosed; or is it truly just about learning to adjust to a new situation? Health spoke to mental health experts to find out more about empty nest syndrome, and what you can do about it.

What is empty nest syndrome?

“Empty nest syndrome is that feeling of emptiness, anxiety and loss that fills you after your children leave your home and make their way out in the world,” family therapist Paul Hokemeyer, PhD, tells Health.

In clinical terms, it would be diagnosed as something called an “adjustment disorder,” falling into the same class as other life transitions such as the loss of a job, a divorce, the loss of a parent or a move to a new city. “The underlying feature of these events is the profound impact they have on our identity and ability to fall grounded in the familiar,” says Dr. Hokemeyer.

What are the symptoms of empty nest syndrome?

According to Dr. Hokemeyer, the symptoms are those typically associated with anxiety and depression. They include the following:

Conflicted feelings of excitement and loss

“As parents we want our children to launch into the world,” says Dr. Hokemeyer. “For years we've poured our hearts and souls in their departure and have often fantasized about the freedom and opportunities we'd enjoy when we had only ourselves to attend to.”

But when the time comes for them to actually leave, many parents find themselves plagued by overwhelming sadness, fear and a deep sense of loss.

Interrupted sleep patterns and nightmares

“Our children are hard wired into our brains. We live and breathe them. They come from us and remain with us forever,” says Dr. Hokemeyer. However, when they leave the home, many parents find that their neurophysiology has a strong reaction that gets played out in their unconscious and dream life.

Guilt

Because many parents never feel like they have done enough, Dr. Hokemeyer explains that the void left behind by a child can exacerbate these feelings.

Marital conflict

Raising kids can be tough on a marriage. After the children are out of the house, Dr. Hokemeyer explains that many couples find that in the years they've devoted to raising their children they've grown apart. “This of course is natural as the physical, emotional and financial demands of child rearing are extraordinary,” he explains.

Self-medication with food, alcohol, drugs, and/or shopping

The empty nest syndrome is painful, and it involves feeling uncomfortable and ungrounded for a while—several years in fact, according to Dr. Hokemeyer. To manage this discomfort, parents often find themselves reaching for outside things to self soothe and fill the hole their child left behind. The most common of these substances are food, material goods, and mind-altering substances like alcohol and drugs.

So what can you do about empty nest syndrome?

First and foremost, Dr. Hokemeyer says that if you are experiencing empty nest syndrome, it is nothing to be ashamed of. “It is perfectly natural for you to be feeling your feelings,” he explains. “Human beings are animals. We are biologically hard wired to protect and nurture our children. Of course we will feel out of sorts and diminished when they leave our nest.”

That being said, he suggests pushing yourself into concrete action steps to move forward with your life. “Re-engage in your community,” he says. “Take a class online or at your local college. Volunteer at the local animal shelter. Start experiencing with watercolor painting. The point is to move in lock step with your child in finding your place out in the world.”

Also, don’t keep your feelings and emotions bottled up. Talk about this transitional period of your life with your partner and best friends. “In challenging times, we are given an opportunity to discover the gifts in our lives. At the top of this list are meaningful relationships with other human beings,” he explains.

And finally, keep in mind that this too shall pass. “When times are challenging and think they will last forever, but they don't,” Dr. Hokemeyer says. “Like the seasons that give us spring, summer, fall and winter our relationship with our children evolve into deeper and richer experiences.”

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