Empty Nest Syndrome – WOMEN in RECOVERY

‘Empty nest syndrome’ is a general feeling of grief and loneliness parents or guardians may feel when their children leave home to live on their own for the first time. Since a young adult moving out their parents’ house is seen as a normal and healthy event, the symptoms of empty nest syndrome often go unrecognized (“Empty Nest Syndrome,” 2010).

For parents, this can result in depression, as well as a loss of purpose. When their children finally “leave the nest”, parents must begin to adjust their lives accordingly.

Symptoms, effects and challenges

While all parents are susceptible to experiencing empty nest syndrome, there are factors that contribute to some parents being more likely to experience it than others such as:

  • Finding change to be stressful rather than refreshing
  • Having an unstable or unsatisfactory marriage
  • Being a full-time parent as opposed to a parent who has other duties such as employment
  • Parents who do not believe their child is ready to be on his or her own
  • People whose identity was based around being a parent
  • Adults who are also dealing with other stressful life events such as menopause, death of a spouse, or retirement are more likely to experience empty nest syndrome (“Empty Nest Syndrome,” 2010).

Symptoms of empty nest syndrome include, but are not limited to:

  • Depression
  • Loss of purpose
  • Worry, stress, or anxiety over the welfare of the child
  • Feelings of rejection

Parents who experience empty nest syndrome often question whether or not they have prepared their child to live on his or her own. Some often feel rejected over the belief their child does not need them anymore. Others still feel a sense of loss of purpose. They may question their purpose because raising, parenting, and disciplining their children is no longer their primary role in life (Myers & Raup, 1989). Mothers, often the primary caregivers, are more likely than fathers to experience empty nest syndrome (“Empty Nest Syndrome,” 2010) though research has shown that some fathers expressed feeling unprepared for the emotional transition accompanied with their child leaving home and guilt over lost opportunities to be more involved in their children’s lives before they left home (Clay, 2003).

They face challenges such as establishing a new kind of relationship with their children, having to find other ways to occupy their newly free time, reconnecting with their spouse, and facing lack of sympathy from people who believe that parents should be happy when their children leave home (“Empty Nest Syndrome,” 2010).


One of the easiest ways for parents to cope with their children’s departure is to keep in contact with them. Cell phones as well as text messaging are primary ways to keep in contact with other people. Another method of communication is through internet communication that allow families to contact one another via several mediums, and have become increasingly popular over the past few years.

Parents experiencing empty nest syndrome are also encouraged to pursue hobbies and interests now that they have more time, allow themselves to feel upset about their children leaving and discuss their grief either with their spouse, close friends, relatives, or a professional, and spend more quality time with their spouse. It is also advised that overwhelmed parents keep a journal, go back to work if they were full-time parents, and give themselves time to adapt to the change in their household (“Empty Nest Syndrome,” 2010).

Myth versus reality

Recent studies have increasingly shown that parents whose children leave home do not necessarily experience the griefs of empty nest syndrome. A study done on British, Chinese, Southern European, and Indo/East Indian families living in Vancouver, British Columbia found that although parents felt some sadness at their children leaving home, a majority experienced increased marital happiness and more leisure time (Lovegreen & Mitchell, 2009). The idea is that the anticipation of children leaving home is more frightening than when they actually do leave and many parents can utilize their new found free time to engage in activities they could not when their lives revolved around nurturing their children (Lyon, 2008). A growing body of research on marriage has shown that once children are brought into the picture, especially the first child, overall marriage satisfaction and happiness decrease (Parker-Pope, 2009). Children often bring about financial stress to families, time constraints, an abundance of household duties on women, and couples are only able to spend about one-third the time alone together they did when they had no children (Lyon, 2008). Once the children leave home, it is considered an optimal time for couples to rediscover and rekindle their relationship by spending more time together. Their children no longer have to be their primary focus during the day and many couples express their quality of time spent together actually improves (Lyons, 2008).

Not-so-empty nest

In the last decade, there has been an increase in the Boomerang Generation that is, individuals who return to their family home as adults and live with their parents (Cohen, DeVault, and Strong, 2011). Factors such as the high unemployment rate in the United States and smaller job markets have been used to explain the surge in the boomerang generation and Census data from 2008 showed that as many as 20 million 18- to 34-year-olds, 34% of that age group, were living at home with their parents. This is compared to the 15% of men and 8% of women in that same age range from a decade earlier (Cohen et al., 2011).

Boomerang Generation is one of several terms applied to the current generation of young adults in Western culture.  They are so named for the frequency with which they choose to co-habitate with their parents after a brief period of living on their own–thus boomeranging back to their place of origin. This cohabitation can take many forms, ranging from situations that mirror the high dependency of pre-adulthood to highly independent, separate-household arrangements.

The term can be used to indicate only those members of this age-set that actually do return home, not the whole generation. In as much as home-leaving practices differ by economic class, the term is most meaningfully applied to members of the middle class.

In a nutshell, ‘Empty Nest Syndrome’ refers to feelings of depression, sadness, and/or grief experienced by parents and caregivers after children come of age and leave their childhood homes. This may occur when children go to college or get married. Women are more likely than men to be affected; often, when the nest is emptying, mothers are going through other significant life events as well, such as menopause or caring for elderly parents. Yet this doesn’t mean that men are completely immune to Empty Nest Syndrome. Men can experience similar feelings of loss regarding the departure of their children.

More mothers work these days and therefore feel less emptiness when their children leave home. Also, an increasing number of adult children between 25 and 34 are now living with their parents at home. Psychologist Allan Scheinberg notes that these “boomerang kids” want the “limited responsibility of childhood and the privileges of adulthood.” Children may also return home due to economics, divorce, extended education, drug or alcohol problems or temporary transitions.

Parents and adult-child cohabitation has been shown to increase conflict:

Almost half reported serious conflict with their children. For parents, the most frequently mentioned problems were the hours of their children’s coming and going and their failure to share in cleaning and maintaining the house. Most wanted their children to be “up, gone, and on their own”” (Cohen et al., 2011).

The Crowded Nest Syndrome deals with how one woman:
• Coped in chaotic conditions of crowded proportions for years.
• Moved out of state only to be followed and invaded…again.
• Watched $250 in groceries disappear in less than 24 hours.
• Gave up vacations for entertaining/raising full-time grandchildren.


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