Coping with Empty Nest Syndrome: Finding New Purpose as Parents

Transitioning into the “empty nest” phase of life as parents is a significant rite of passage. As your children leave home (often for college), a whirlwind of emotions can ensue. The empty space where there was once laughter, chatter, and occasional teenage drama in the home is suddenly filled with silence. That’s a lot for many parents to handle, and it’s normal to feel sadness, loss, and even anxiety about this new chapter. However, it’s essential to remember that this unavoidable phase of life also offers parents opportunities for personal growth and rediscovery.

What is Empty Nest Syndrome and what isn’t it?  Empty Nest Syndrome refers to feelings of sadness or loneliness that parents may feel when their children depart from home. It’s important to note though that the phenomenon is not a clinical diagnosis, but rather a shared emotional experience.  The assorted emotions and conflicts parents experience occur for a variety of reasons.

For instance, for years, parents define much of their lives around their children’s needs.  With this constant role now changed, the silence can be daunting, which can create a sense of lost purpose or a parenting void.  Parents also often identify first and foremost as caregivers. So, when children leave, it can bring about an identity crisis of sorts.  And, whether a child is younger or older, parental worry or concern is always a reality.  As our children step out and into the world, parental worries can amplify, exacerbating feelings of helplessness or anxiety.

So, how can parents cope as they transition into the empty nest phase of life?  As a child psychologist, I offer the following tips.

  1. I think it’s important for parents to embrace their feelings. It’s natural to feel grief or loss when your young adult child leaves home. Instead of pushing these feelings away, accept and process them. Whether through journaling, meditation, or discussion, acknowledgment of the loss and ensuing changes is the first step to healing.
  2. They say that travel is the best teacher, and it can also help with healing loss. Without the confines of school calendars or extracurricular activities, the world is your oyster. Whether it’s backpacking in Europe or a quiet retreat in the countryside, the options are endless for parents without children at home.
  3. It’s also important to rediscover new relationships. For those with partners, this period can be a golden opportunity to rekindle the romance and shared activities you once enjoyed. Single parents can use this time for self-reflection and personal development.
  4. Forging a new routine is also a good idea. Whether it’s adopting a new fitness regimen, picking up an old hobby, or dedicating time for self-care, establishing new routines can provide structure and purpose.
  5. Focusing on personal enrichment can also be helpful. Joining a club, learning an instrument, or diving into a new book series are just a few pursuits to consider that can be therapeutically rewarding and can enrich the mind and soul.
  6. Maintaining a connection with your adult child is a must, and thanks to technology, staying connected has never been easier. Regular calls, texts, or even surprise visits can keep the parent-child bond strong.
  7. It’s also smart to seek out and lean on others as needed. There are many support groups, both online and offline, dedicated to helping parents navigate the empty nest phase. Lean on these communities for advice and camaraderie.
  8. Volunteering is a great way to refocus, and many parents find real joy in giving back. As a parent, you could explore local charitable initiatives or even embark on something grander such as an overseas volunteer mission.
  9. Academic ventures can be a helpful way to process change. Consider enrolling in a course, attending workshops, or even pursuing a new degree. It’s never too late to learn.
  10. Mentoring is also a great way to shift perspective and to find purpose again as an empty nester. With years of experience, you can offer guidance to youngsters, be it in personal matters or professional avenues.

In conclusion, the nest may seem empty now, but it’s brimming with potential. And, while you may be struggling to find purpose or meaning as a parent, remember that the journey doesn’t end here — in many ways, the journey has only just begun.  Your children will always need you; the only change is that they will need you differently as they become more autonomous and independent in adulthood.

“There are two lasting bequests we can give our children. One is roots. The other is wings.” ~Hodding Carter, Jr.

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Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D. “Dr. Mike” is a clinical psychologist in private practice.
He can be reached at 703-723-2999, and is located at 44095 Pipeline Plaza, Suite 240, Ashburn