Empty nest syndrome: What it is and how to deal with it

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A 45-year-old female client in therapy tells me: “My daughter just left for her education abroad and I feel broken from within. While I go to my job and finish all that I am supposed to do, I feel anxious and a void, which is eating me up. I oscillate between feeling numb and getting teary-eyed at the smallest of things. There is a sense of loss that no one seems to understand.”

This is the time of year when couples, primarily women, reach out for therapy to deal with the “empty nest syndrome”.

This is a syndrome that parents or primary caregivers experience when their adult child leaves home for further education, a job or even marriage. This shows up in feelings of anxiety, anguish, sadness, low mood, grief, emptiness, meaninglessness, sometimes even a feeling of numbness. Generally, the feelings begin to show up a few months before the child leaves or within a month or two of the children leaving.

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Very often it’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, parents feel a sense of relief at having their own time; On the other, there are feelings of despair and loneliness. If you have two or more children, it’s important to remember that the feelings of sadness and grief are exacerbated when the youngest leaves home. Couples, however, experience loss in different ways with every child leaving home.

In my experience, children leaving the house can impact the marriage too. It’s very common for couples to reach out for marital therapy as they feel their conflicts escalate when their children leave the home. Sometimes, they find it hard to be around each other.

In the case of some couples, though, the relationship blossoms and strengthens as they recognise that this is the first time in years that they have “couple time” to focus on their relationship and engage in travel, shared activities, even rekindle their love and affection for each other.

Parenting and child-rearing is a 24×7 job, so when the child is ready to leave the house and be on their own, it’s normal for parents to experience a sense of grief. Acknowledging that this developmental milestone can come with intense emotions and a sense of loss is the first step parents can take. It may help to log or monitor your mood, anxiety, and pay attention to the frequency and intensity of the symptoms. If there are panic attacks, crippling anxiety, insomnia for days and prolonged feelings of over a long duration, see a mental health professional who can help you navigate this phase.

What the empty nest syndrome requires of a parent is a fresh examination of their own needs, dreams and purpose as they step into a new inning, with children finding their own roots. Learning to repurpose your life is important. Different people navigate it differently; some immerse themselves in work, others enjoy the luxury of time and the “spaciousness” of their day.

It may be important to find a new structure to the day; Very often, the activities that would take up a substantial part of a parent’s day—like organising meals, the children’s social life, coordination for pick-ups and drops from school or tuition—are no longer required.

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Simple steps like exercising, eating meals on time, waking up and sleeping on time every day are some of the first steps in the context of structure which can go a long way in regulating mood. It’s very common for empty nesters to either withdraw socially or feel an intense desire to connect socially with others. Take time to identify and invest in friendships, community and even interests that are nourishing for you.

Clients talking about how speaking to other empty nesters gives them a feeling of solidarity and hope. Acknowledge that transitions can be anxiety-provoking and that it’s okay to take time, be patient with yourself as you find a new rhythm with your own life and learn what it means to be present for your children while they are away from home.

Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health with Sonali.

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