When Linda’s youngest kid Amanda moved into a dorm as she began attending college in another state, suddenly Linda found herself at a loss about how to spend her time. Now 46, she had spent all of her married life taking care of her two kids Michael, 24 and Amanda, 18. Now, they were both off to college pursuing their own dreams and destiny's. Linda felt really empty inside. She was overcome with overwhelming sense of sadness, loss and grief. She found herself sobbing often and waking up in the middle of the night, worrying about Amanda. She also noticed she had not been feeling very hungry and felt disinterested in her environment. Her husband George was both concerned and a little annoyed because he felt that now it was their turn to do things together. But Linda was having difficulty getting herself together and moving forward. After about 6 months of feeling down and withdrawn, both Linda and George decided she needed a therapist.
Empty Nest Syndrome: Inability to Move Forward
Linda’s story will ring a bell for many parents but particularly for mothers. When kids finally leave the parental home and after many years of emotional and timely investment, parents simply don’t know what to do with themselves. These situations may be more difficult for recently separated or widowed couples and single parents. Ambivalence is a big part of this syndrome whereby parents do want to see their kids grow up and forge ahead but still have difficulty accepting it. It should be realized that these feelings are normal and natural. Also, people cope with these feelings in their own unique ways.
What to tell your kids?
The best way to address your worries and concerns is to prepare your children for the new voyage in the best possible manner:
· Stress values: Values are the guiding lights of our lives. Stressing the importance of sticking to their values even when they have new found freedom is most critical.
· Clarify expectations: It is important to discuss ahead of time the expectations regarding academic performance, visitation, expenses, etc.
· Guard against risky behavior: These should be spelled out in detail.
· Share your own experience: These can be very powerful teaching tools if used in the proper context.
· Agree on modes of communication: This can avoid both conflicts and undue worries.
What To Do for Yourselves as Parents?
Even though every person’s situation is different, I would suggest the following principles:
· Realize you’re still needed: The college age kids still need parental guidance and support while they are trying to find themselves.
· Pursue unfulfilled dreams: This could mean going back to school, beginning a new career, starting new hobbies or travelling, etc.
· Pay attention to your adult relationship: Whether you are married or the in a non-marital relationship, the empty nest syndrome has potential to create problems. Often the romance and passion take a backseat or long-term conflicts are not addressed. Having yourself without the daily obligations with the kids should be utilized as a new beginning to rekindle your romance, rediscover your relationships or set new goals in your relationship.
· Do not drown in work: Many empty nesters take shelter in their jobs. They tend to overwork, hoping they won’t have time to miss their kids. This can actually increase your stress in the long run.
· Living a healthy lifestyle: Now that you have more time for yourself, it’s a great opportunity to pay extra attention to your well-being. Starting a healthier diet and exercise routine will not only help you cope with the stress of an empty nest, but will also make you healthier and happier.
The purpose of this article is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical or psychiatric issue. Dr. Rakesh Ranjan is a practicing psychiatrist and a researcher. He is a recipient of several research awards and has authored several peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapter on psychiatric illnesses and their treatments. He is a national speaker for several organizations and serves on the medical advisory board for NAMI for Greater Cleveland. For more information, or if you have any questions, please check out our website at charakcenter.org.