Column: Ways to cope with empty-nest syndrome
For many of us, changes in our familiar routine can spark anything from mild dissatisfaction to extreme anxiety. Maybe it's something out of our control, like being downsized or getting sick. Maybe we've made a risky but necessary choice, like moving to a new city.
Change is a natural part of life but it can feel very unnatural when it happens. We can think of change as something dangerous, something to be feared. Like most things, however, our fear and anxiety can be far less if we understand what is happening.
So it is when parents face what has come to be called "empty-nest syndrome." Empty-nest syndrome isn't a clinical diagnosis. Instead, it is a phenomenon in which parents experience feelings of sadness and loss when their last child leaves home. Although most parents actively encourage their children to become independent, the experience of letting go can still be a painful one.
This condition is typically more common in women. Many mothers dedicate 20 years or more of their lives to bringing up their children, and see motherhood as their primary role. This is true even for most working mothers. When the children have gone, a deep loss of purpose and identity can result, bringing sadness, grief, depression and profound uncertainty about the future. Psychologists suggest that it may take from 18 months to two years to successfully transition from mothering a dependent child to the new mother-child relationship that must develop when a child leaves the home.
The experience can be difficult for both parents, though. Unlike the grief experienced when a loved one dies, for example, the grief of empty nest syndrome often goes unrecognized. Since a grown child leaving home is seen as a normal, healthy and expected event, parents grieving this change may find few sources of sympathy or support.
It is important to recognize that these feelings are completely normal. Many parents have experienced and are experiencing the same things. If you're experiencing feelings of loss due to empty nest syndrome, take action. For example:
Accept the timing of the change. Avoid comparing your child's timetable for leaving home to your own personal experience, or that of a friend. Instead, focus on what you can do to help your child succeed when he or she does leave home.
Keep the lines of communication open. You can continue to be close to your children even when living apart. Make an effort to maintain regular contact. Work with your child to discover the right balance of visits, phone calls, emails, texts or video chats.
Seek the support of others. You're not alone. If you're having a difficult time dealing with an empty nest, lean on loved ones and other close contacts for support. Share your feelings. There may be support groups in your area where others who are going through the same feelings can provide support and insight. If you feel depressed, consult your doctor or a mental health provider.
In the end, the important thing is to stay positive about a life change that is completely natural and healthy. Studies suggest that an empty nest can provide parents with many benefits. When the last child leaves home, there is a new opportunity for parents to reconnect and improve the quality of their marriage, to travel or rekindle interests for which they previously might not have had time.