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Empty Nest Blues: What To Do When you Become an Empty Nester

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Don't Underestimate the Power of Suggestion to Effect Positive Change

Updated Sept 28, 2022

What is Empty Nest Syndrome?

Before I share my powerful strategies for dealing with Empty Nest Syndrome, I’d like to establish a few truths about this challenge. First, Empty Nest Syndrome is not a mental disorder, but rather an aspect of life that some people go through. By my definition, it is “an experience characterized by feelings of intense sadness that parents feel when their children leave home for good and begin their independent lives.”

Empty Nest Syndrome feelings may seem like depression. However, studies show no increase in depression among women at this stage of life, according to Psychology Today, citing a recent review of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

The common experience for people dealing with Empty Nest Syndrome is that the sadness diminishes over time. Individuals who have feelings of depression that persist or escalate, or who seek unhealthy behaviors, such as overindulging in alcohol, may have an underlying issue that has been exacerbated by the transition of a child leaving home, and they should seek professional help.

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Coping with Empty Nest Syndrome

Numerous factors can advance recovery from empty nest feelings and these are highly individualistic. It depends on a person’s current quality of life from which they draw meaning and purpose. These include the following:

  • Relationships
  • Friendships
  • Work
  • Activities and hobbies
  • Spirituality
  • Self-reflection and self-work
  • Life plans - travel, attend parties or events

Time is a mighty overarching force that supports getting over the sadness as well.

The 3 stages of empty nest syndrome

Carin Rubenstein, a social psychologist and author of the book “Beyond the Mommy Years: How to Live Happily Ever After… After the Kids Leave Home” (cited by the Washington Post, 2012) summed up the emotional ride that mothers experience in three stages.

1. Grief 

The initial stage is characterized by mourning and deep sadness due to a sense of loss as a parent. The feeling of grief may last for a few weeks to months.

2. Relief

After overcoming grief comes relief, thinking about the positive side of what happened such as not fighting anymore with your child, or not being responsible for duties related to their school, or any direct obligation with their child’s life.

3. Joy

The final stage of empty nesters is when parents feel joy about their life. It’s when they realize that they also have a life of their own that is worth living. Joy is achieved when parents ultimately accept and embrace the changes in their family, including a separate life meant to be lived by their children.    

Six strategies to deal with empty nest syndrome

As a life coach who specializes in empty nest and beyond the nest coaching, and having gone through dealing with Empty Nest Syndrome myself, I am happy to share six powerful strategies for dealing with this phenomenon.

I encourage you to read through these recommendations and write them on a sticky note to keep by close by over the next several days. This will keep them top of mind. Then you can journal about each of the five strategies. See it as the exploratory and preparatory due diligence required to unleash the power of these steps.

#1  Acceptance

The very first step when dealing with Empty Nest Syndrome is to accept your feelings. Until you do, it’ll be impossible to take any meaningful action. So how do you accept the tears that fall when you look at your daughter’s graduation photo or walk by your son’s bedroom door?

Here’s what you do:

•    Let yourself cry and feel the pain
•    Speak out loud about how you feel or write it down in a journal
•    Never, ever, beat yourself up about your feelings
•    Create affirmations of acceptance and repeat them mentally every time you feel      sad
•    Meditate on acceptance

This may seem like work, and you may tweak my suggestions to suit yourself. But don’t underestimate the incredible power of suggestion on your brain, especially in the form of affirmations, to effect positive change.

The more we repeat an affirmation, the more our brains just work away at those synapses until a manifestation occurs. So keep at it!

The brain cannot tell the difference between the truth or a lie when we speak to it. The more we repeat an affirmation, the more our brains just work away at those synapses until a manifestation occurs. So keep at it!


 

#2 Cultivate support

Cultivating support is essential. Not everyone will understand what you are going through, and many will just not relate and suggest you “snap out of it.” Even your partner may not feel the same way you do, although he/she may be the child’s other parent. So selecting the right people to support you is the way to go.

This is typically the friend who is always on your side; the one who is always telling you to stop being too hard on yourself or encouraging you to do something because you deserve it. That’s the friend you need now.

When dealing with Empty Nest Syndrome, we often feel as though our well-being wells are tapped out. Our support networks can help fill the well back up. But be careful not to rely on your life partner for all of this replenishing. The majority of your support should come from others. This way your primary relationship in the home is not overwhelmed by the empty nest sadness.

A life or family coach can work magic in a short period because coaches are trained to guide clients in a solutions-focused way to achieve their desires. Our coaching expertise covers dealing with feelings and resolving the challenges empty nesters often face, such as identity crises and facing an uncertain future.

#3  Focus on the future

Focus on the future with your children. Try this exercise. Remember before you had children, how you imagined what they would someday be like? When you were pregnant, do you recall wondering who your unborn child would look like?

The first time you held your baby, remember peeking into the future to glimpse how her life might unfold, or when your three-year-old mischievously and frustratingly kept running and hiding you imagined how his impish behavior might manifest in a young man?

Back then the next 18 years seemed like an eternity, but here you are, and you can project new imaginings for the next 18 years or more. Imagine your child’s wedding day, the birth of a grandchild, or the time they’ll come to you for some life-changing guidance - because they will.


 

When my kids were babies I recall someone sharing the stages of parenting and how children need us through every stage, even if sometimes it seems that they don’t. I recall being mildly surprised when she continued past the young adult stage. Yes, your children will need you for many things in the future. Imagine some of them now.
 

#4  Keep in touch

This strategy is a very powerful one, but it’s dicey.  While you are dealing with Empty Nest Syndrome - weeping at the silence in the house, chances are, no matter how close you are to your child, he/she is relishing some newfound independence.

You want to stay in touch. You want to see your child. But you don’t want to be pushy. Here’s how to manage this delicate balance:

  • Let your child know you are always there for him/her to talk to, visit, etc.
  • Keep the lines of communication open through social networks and regular calls
  • Conversations should be light and respectful of the youngster’s adulthood - let them mess up!
  • Continue with family events - annual trips, holidays, traditions
  • Let them see you getting on with your life!


 

Over time you’ll find that your relationships with kids will evolve into something slightly different and quite meaningful. No, they’re not your friend. You are always a parent. But there’s a fine sense of accomplishment that you feel, and it seeps into the newly-defined relationship.


 

#5  Be Selfish

This is arguably the most powerful strategy when it comes to dealing with Empty Nest Syndrome because it’s about creating your new life, without children.  And yes, if you start to think about the next chapter while you’re struggling to overcome the sadness, it will be time well spent.

For the majority of people experiencing Empty Nest Syndrome, the sadness is temporary. Over weeks, perhaps months, our natural personal proclivities resurface as the changing environment becomes our new normal.


 

Planning for the future is essential. This is your me time - something you’d have done desperate, unmentionable things for back in your old life, right? So plan it! I realize that most people still have significant commitments, such as work, household, and caring for elderly parents. But the time once dedicated to child-rearing has opened up, and you need to use it for yourself.

My advice is to hire a coach to guide you through charting out the next stage; perhaps helping you to set some goals and holding you accountable to them. In any case, get started on your vision of the future.

Now is the very best time to begin the self-reflection work on what you want out of the next three to five decades. Just this strategy could take up a weekend workshop, but allow me to simplify it into a few, helpful, do-this-now points:

  • Take one thing you’ve always wanted to do and set the plan in motion to begin
  • Write a journal entry about your ideal future life (anything goes; this is just for            awareness)
  • Carve out alone time every single day for an indulging activity - at least 30                minutes

These early steps will build the foundation upon which you can learn to truly be selfish (in a good sense) and feel great about your transition to being an empty nester.


 

#6  Repair your relationships

The empty nest is a portal phase to your next stage of life. To receive these exciting new experiences fully, you’ll want to have balance in your life.

As you begin to heal from the sadness of your empty nest, consider if your relationships with your children could be better. The empty nest is a portal phase to your next stage of life. To receive these exciting new experiences fully, you’ll want to have balance in your life. If you’re sad about your kids moving on now,  you’ll be doubly sad if unresolved childhood resentments hamper your future get-togethers.


 

Your relationships with your children should be mutually fantastic. If they are not, then make the changes necessary to improve them. Well, that is a tall order! some of you might say. Then for you, it’s even more important!  

Here’s why: Childhood grievances often fester into much larger issues that can become areas of resentment and resistance as time passes. Parents and children both feel these concerns, but I find it shocking the number of people who say the problem is with their child; that he won’t listen or she isn’t open to discussing or we just keep butting heads. Not good enough!

Someone needs to take the first step, and it may as well be the older, wiser, and hopefully more mature person in the partnership.

Remember, children’s brains do not fully develop until at least the mid-20s, if not later, so they may not be able to initiate the mature decision to talk about family problems. You may have to take the high road and do what is necessary to mend your relationships with your kids, now. Consider this transition in your lives a new baseline from which to move forward, as adults in a respectful family relationship.


 

Dealing with Empty Nest Syndrome often begins long before children leave. In high school, most teens unconsciously start separating from their parents and seeking their way, through friendships and extra-familial pursuits.

Often parents recognize this, and the sadness seeps in, along with the realization of how it might be one day when they are permanently gone. This was my experience, and you can read about it here.

Your core as a rod of steel

The essence of you; your true, inner core that is pure and real and what your physical body embraces, but doesn’t always align with.

I’ll leave you with a bonus strategy for dealing with Empty Nest Syndrome. It’s one I often use for a variety of challenges, as well as a daily awareness practice. Consider that there are two parts of your person. There is the physical you who shows up every day in front of people, carrying out tasks, making things happen, and living life.

And then there is the essence of you; your true, inner core that is pure and real and what your physical body embraces, but doesn’t always align with. We often do not go about our daily activities as mindfully as we could. This isn’t always essential, but it can be very helpful during tough times.

Close your eyes and tune into your breath for just a count of ten. As you’re listening to your breath, imagine your core as a rod of steel.

 

I’ve found that this connection to my inner “steel rod” core has been my savior through many challenges. It helps me to realize that I truly am - as we all are - alone in this journey. We are the only ones who can open our mouths and choose to utter certain words.

Only we can engage our brains to take concrete action. When I’m feeling lost, sad, or confused, I’ll often tune into this inner core and breathe, and usually, I can see a new way. And if there’s one certainty we coaches know, it’s that the answers are always inside of us.

FAQ

  1. How long does it take to get over empty nest syndrome?

Empty nest syndrome can be experienced by both parents but often, mothers are the most afflicted, being the primary carer of their children and having dedicated decades of their lives to motherhood.

Once their primary role as mothers has evolved into a long-distance relationship with their children, they may feel worthless and disoriented regarding what to do next. Though most parents adapt quickly in a span of 3 months, psychologists reveal that for some, the transition takes between 18 months and 2 years for a mom to be back to an independent woman.   

  1. What are the 3 characteristics of empty nesters?

Empty nest syndrome is a typical event among parents and a phase that they go through once their children leave home. There are 3 characteristics that generally describe empty nesters.

a. Grief. As a natural response to loss, parents feel pain or deep sadness as their children take on a new path away from them. 

b. Emptiness. Being happy while their children are home sends a feeling of emotional numbness, apathy, or lack of worthwhile things to do once their children depart. 

c. Fear and worry. After feeling emotional suffering and numbness, parents begin to get anxious about the future, both for them, as parents, and even more so for their children. 

  1. How do I reinvent myself as an empty nester?

Dedicating your life to your family often leaves less room for your personal enjoyment and growth. However, it’s never too late to reinvent yourself. Consider this time as your gift to finally do what you’ve set aside for a long time. 

Here are some ways for you to leave the emotional baggage from being an empty nester and still soar as a parent and individual. 

a. Find your purpose that goes beyond being a parent. Go back to your interests or learn something new.

b. Contribute to a greater cause. Join a community or start to volunteer by helping others who are in need.

c. Be physically active. Daily walking or jogging for 20 to 30 minutes is a proven way to maintain your physical and psychological fitness. Research shows that walking not only cuts your stress hormone levels but also releases endorphins that set you in a good mood. 


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