Coping with an Empty Nest

Strategies for Survival When Your Child Leaves Home

In a few short weeks, students across the country will be preparing for a major milestone: their high school graduation. While the thought of moving away from home, whether to attend college, join the military, or find a job, likely fills these students with joy and eager anticipation, their parents may have conflicting emotions about their children “leaving the nest” for the first time. If, as a parent, you’ve already found yourself dreading the day you say goodbye, Gena Ellis with First Things First has some words of wisdom for you.

What is empty nest syndrome?

Empty nest syndrome is the wash of emotions – ranging from sadness to extreme grief, anxiety, and loneliness – that can affect parents when their children grow up and leave home. “Each parent may react differently to this time of transition,” Ellis explains. “Some may share in their children’s excitement as they prepare to live independently. Other parents may feel as if their lives have been turned upside down and that they have no purpose going forward.” Considering how much time, energy, and attention parents give to their children, it’s no surprise that many struggle with their own identities when those children move away.

older husband and wife enjoying time together now that they are empty nesters

What are some strategies for combatting empty nest syndrome?

Plan ahead.

“Think about what you want your life to be like when your nest is empty. Then prepare to make that happen while your children are still at home,” Ellis advises. Reaching out to family and friends who have already experienced the empty nest can be a great way to seek support and help you learn what to expect.

Reconnect with your spouse.

Think of your child leaving home as the perfect opportunity to rekindle the romance between you and your spouse. Speaking from experience, Ellis shares, “My son going off to college was a wake-up call for my marriage. My husband and I became more intentional about making time for us; we started going on dates and short getaways. We recognized that when our child left home, we still had each other.” 

Find ways to occupy your time.

When your days are no longer crammed with carpools, sporting activities, and hours of homework help, it can seem like a gaping hole has formed in your life. Ellis suggests that new hobbies, such as yoga or photography, or social activities like book club can serve as fun and meaningful time-fillers. You might even consider taking some college courses yourself or pursuing a new career! 

Stay connected with your child.

Even though your child no longer lives in your home, you can still maintain a great relationship with him or her. “There are so many ways to connect, such as calling, text, FaceTime, or Zoom,” says Ellis. Just be sure to have realistic expectations – the truth is, your child probably won’t want to talk every single night. “I would set healthy limits, like talking once per week, and if you text, expect a reply of some kind within 24 hours. You want to give your child space to settle in and create their new routine,” Ellis adds.

Is empty nest syndrome preventable?

Although it’s perfectly normal for parents to experience a variety of emotions as their children move through transitions in life, there’s no need to let empty nest syndrome take a severe toll on your mental health. Fortunately, it can be mitigated with a proactive approach. “It’s important for parents to have a life of their own apart from their children and to remember that their goal is for their children to grow up and successfully leave home,” Ellis explains. “Even though it seems like many of the parenting years are spent surviving one crisis to the next, if you can take even a small amount of time to invest in yourself, it will help prepare you for the future. It’s not helpful for a parent’s happiness and fulfillment to come from their children, and when children launch into adulthood, they need to know their parent is okay and can support them in this exciting season of life.” HS

Picture of Gena Ellis

Gena Ellis

Relationship Facilitator, First Things First

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