The “empty nest” refers to the physical and psychological change in the family when a child leaves home or goes away to college. For about 18 years, parents have invested themselves in the emotionally consuming process of raising a family—and suddenly one day the children leave home. As the nest empties, a chapter of parenting draws to a close, often accompanied by ambivalent feelings from both children and parents. The empty space that opens up in parents’ lives can be both exciting and frightening.
Many parents experience deep grief as they prepare to let go of their sons or daughters and the family as they have known it. There are multiple losses including the loss of daily life with children, loss of the sense of family that the parents have built, and loss of the active job of parenting (“I’m out of a job.” “I’m no longer needed.”). These losses can play havoc with a parent’s self-worth, particularly if that parent’s identity has revolved around child rearing. Grief can be especially deep if it is the first, last, or only child to leave home, if the relationship with the child was especially close, if the child played a critical role in the family, or if there have been other recent losses. This major life passage can coincide with middle age, menopause, and caring for aging parents, as well as issues around finances. It can also bring to light unresolved family, marital, or personal issues that had been put aside while parenting.
Often marriages go through major adjustments after children leave home, as time and energy are freed up from parenting and partners are left alone in the house with each other. Marital relationships have often suffered from lack of attention, intimacy, and nurturance throughout the child-raising years. The adolescent years can severely strain a marriage as well, with the lack of privacy, increased sexuality present in the house, and disagreements between parents about parenting. It is common for long-term problems in the marriage to surface. As partners find themselves alone with one another in a house without children to distract them, marriages often come under scrutiny. This can be an important time to become reacquainted with one another, confront long-term relationship issues that now have the space to surface, and co-create new dreams and projects. It can also be a time when partners find that they have very little left in common; many marriages at this juncture end in divorce. Couples who wait until the children leave home to deal with the long-term problems in their marriages run a much greater risk of divorce.
Parents are challenged to let go of the child they protected and nurtured through childhood. As the young adult is now being launched into the world, parents must assess the job they have done. Parenting is a humbling and challenging experience, and it is rare for a parent to have no regrets. Parents are faced with the reality that they will not have a second chance and that they have prepared their children as best they can. Now it is time to let go of their children. Often the relationship has suffered from the inevitable conflicts of the teen years, and parents may feel a mixture of relief and regret that their son/daughter is leaving home. Parents also know that the relationship is changing; once that child has left home, the relationship will never be what it had been, even if the young adult returns home for a period of time. The parent-child relationship at this stage is much like a dance in which the parents have to be ready to step back as the child steps forward, without stepping back too quickly, as the child may fall. The dance of supporting children through this transition is a delicate one, needing timing and sensitivity.
It is difficult to predict how the young adult will move through this transition; it can be a rocky time for both parents and children, with the tension straining the parent-child relationship. As they leave home, young adults are struggling with the developmental tasks of searching for identity and independence. They are saying goodbyes, focusing on their futures, and struggling with questions (“Who am I, apart from my family and school?” “What do I believe in?” “What do I want to do with my life?”) and self-doubts (“What if I get homesick?” “What if I chose the wrong college?” “What if I don’t find new friends?”). Many feel ambivalent about leaving home and have fears about the change in the relationship with their parents (“Will they still love me if I don’t make choices they agree with?”). Young adults may feel conflicting pulls between remaining loyal to the family (and its values) and wanting to break free and discover their own beliefs, feelings, talents, and needs. In an attempt to find their own identities and place in the world, over the next few year these young adults will be confronting and reassessing parents’ values, lifestyles, and relationships—with an ever-widening gap between their experiences and the world of their parents. Some children may need to return home for a period of time. This can create stress as the family attempts to readjust while parents and boomerang children deal with feelings of disappointment or even shame.
Children who are leaving home benefit from knowing that parents are dealing constructively with the empty nest and knowing that parents are seeking to find new meaning, intimacy, and possibilities in this new phase of their lives. It is much more difficult for children to leave if parents are unhappy. As parents face the empty nest, they are challenged to re-create their lives and remodel the family system in such a way that it nurtures the newly defined needs of the parents/ partners, along with a new relationship with children that embraces, supports, and appreciates them as adults.
Following are some suggestions for parents who are experiencing empty nest:
- Acknowledge the importance of this life transition. Your family is changing, as is your relationship with your child. If you can tend to your own feelings of loss, you can support your child in his/her awkward steps toward independence.
- Get the support of your friends and partner. Reassure them that they do not have to make you feel better; they can just be with you. Consider starting or joining a mothers support group.
- Review your relationship with your child—what you regret and appreciate, what you left out of your parenting, what you have given your child, what you have learned about yourself. Be willing to honor this phase of your mothering, perhaps through a ritual.
- Make room for the differences in how your family members will deal with this change. Be willing to let go of your expectations and open to things as they are.
- Take time to regularly communicate with your family members about the upcoming changes. Listen to your child; acknowledge his/her fears and anxieties while keeping the bigger picture in mind. Understand that the pressure of separation may strain your relationship and that this may be a time of increased arguing.
- Communicate with your spouse about the changes you both are experiencing in your marriage. Some couples find that they have neglected their marriage while they were raising their children; it is common for long-term problems in the marriage to surface at this time. Many couples find this to be a good time for marriage counseling.
- Explore who you are in the world after your child leaves home. Be open to the emptiness and the possibilities within it. Explore new questions about the direction of your life. Give yourself permission to dream; cultivate interests you may have set aside during your parenting years. Set a goal to initiate at least two new ideas within the first few months after your child leaves for college.
- Arp, , Arp, C., Stanley, S., Markman, H., & Blumberg, S. (2000). Fighting for your empty nest marriage: Reinventing your relationship when the kids leave home. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Lauer, J., & Lauer, R. (1999). How to survive and thrive in an empty nest. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
- Psychology Today. (n.d.). Empty nest syndrome. Retrieved from http://cms.psychologytoday.com/conditions/emptynest.html