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Surviving empty nest syndrome: Signs and ways to cope

BY Susannah Hickling

7th Sep 2023 Inspire

6 min read

Surviving empty nest syndrome: Signs and ways to cope
When her son leaves home, health expert Susannah Hickling is unexpectedly hit with empty nest syndrome. She explains how to survive and thrive in this new era
Empty nest syndrome hit me unexpectedly in Tesco and it hit me like a freight train. All the chicken breast fillets were packaged for two people and there was only one of us at home now. I spent the rest of that food shop choking back tears.
I was shocked at my reaction. My 18-year-old son was loving his first term at uni and I was thrilled for him. I’d always found parenting a bit of a chore and had always worked, so it wasn’t as if I was defined by motherhood. What was going on?

What is empty nest syndrome?

Mother dropping off child at university, an empty nest syndrome trigger
It seems that feelings of sadness when a child leaves home are common among parents. The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t helped. With lockdowns throwing families together 24/7, we got very used to having our children around.
A study of 1,000 parents from student accommodation provider Unite Students found that 98 per cent of mums and dads who were dropping off their offspring at university for the first time in 2021 experienced extreme grief, with 93 per cent believing the pandemic had aggravated it.
Yet you can’t get a diagnosis of empty nest syndrome. It doesn’t exist as a mental health condition and some academics have pooh-poohed it.
A 2015 University of Arizona study of 2,200 mostly well-educated mothers found they were actually more unhappy when their children were at middle school and concluded, “‘empty nest’ syndrome is largely a myth”.
Other researchers have found children leaving home has a positive effect on parents’ wellbeing. But research remains limited, perhaps reflecting experts’ lack of interest in the subject.
So what is empty nest syndrome? “It’s a very real phenomenon,” insists GP Dr Dominique Thompson, a young people’s mental health specialist and author of How to Grow a Grown-Up, aimed at parents. “It can be as strong as a grief reaction for some people.”
For psychotherapist Lucy Beresford, it’s a life event. “It’s about an ending, it’s about loss and the ending of one particular, defined relationship and a transition to another type of existence. You spend less time with the person and you grow physically apart. They might go to university or get married, therefore your relationship has changed and your role in life has changed.”
"It’s about an ending, it’s about loss and the ending of one particular, defined relationship"
This can have a profound effect. “The word ‘empty’ is really crucial—you feel empty and purposeless,” says Beresford, author of Happy Relationships at Home, Work and Play. “You might ask, ‘Who am I?’ It can generate a lot of fear, as well as loneliness and actual concrete depression.”
But I was relieved to discover empty nest syndrome is temporary for most people. “It’s a loss in life but we recover from a loss,” stresses Thompson. 
Some people feel it more keenly than others. Children leaving may happen while you’re riding the hormonal rollercoaster of the menopause or going through another transition, such as the death of elderly parents. And, let’s face it, it’s always going to feel odd when you wave off your only child or the last of your brood.
“Everyone’s situation is different,” cautions Dr Dominique Thompson, “but there are groups of parents who are particularly susceptible—perhaps the ones whose lives have revolved most around the day-to-day care of their almost grown-up young person, for example a home parent, or perhaps they don’t have the kind of career that takes up a lot of their time.”

Who suffers empty nest syndrome the most?

Single parent holding child
For me, my son going off to uni came at a difficult moment. I’d brought him up alone since he was a baby, when his father was killed in an accident, and I was looking for a nursing home for my mother while supporting my brother who has a learning disability.
To cap it all, a promising new relationship ended abruptly. I was staring at the rest of my life and it looked bleak.
Other lone parents I know also seemed to suffer disproportionately. “A lot of their life revolves around that person and you imagine you haven’t got the support other people might have if there’s another parent,” suggests Lucy Beresford.
But that’s not necessarily the case, she believes. “There are a lot of people in relationships who end up feeling lonelier because they expect they are going to reconnect as a couple, and it doesn’t happen.”
Willis Atherley-Bourne, a psychotherapist at the Priory Hospital Hayes Grove, Bromley, believes single parents might doubt their parenting. “There may be pressure to set the child off in the best way possible but they feel they haven’t done enough because they can’t be both parents.” 
"A lot of their life revolves around that person and you imagine you haven’t got the support other people might have if there’s another parent"
Most research has centred around mothers, but fathers suffer too. “Dads fear for their daughters,” explains Atherley-Bourne. “They worry about what it is to be a young woman in the world now.”
Andy Baker, 62, from Cardigan in Pembrokeshire was unconcerned when his son left home, but when his daughter flew the nest a couple of years later, he felt differently. “I felt I couldn’t protect her anymore,” he recalls.
But sometimes there appears to be little rhyme or reason to parents’ grief when their young people move out. Busy English teacher Alexia Bartlett, 55, from Street in Somerset cried all the way home after she and her husband dropped their son off at university in Bath, in spite of having a younger daughter still at home.
“I used to open his bedroom door and peer in and look at his things and smell his smell,” she remembers.
Even though her son is now in his third year, she still misses him when he goes back to campus at the beginning of term, but tries to rationalise it. “I’m happy he’s independent, competent, sensible and responsible. It’s good he’s away. It’s what you wish for.”

Coping with empty nest syndrome

Older couple of cycle ride
Given the seemingly random nature of empty nest syndrome, I’m intrigued to know if I could have avoided it. It seems it’s all about the preparation in the months and weeks leading up to Departure Day.
“Look at purpose, look at people and look at planning ahead,” says Dr Dominique Thompson. “Think about the different areas of your life—work or whatever else gives you purpose, friends and family, activities, such as sport or volunteering.”
She suggests listing the things you’ve always wanted to do. This could be the moment to look for a job or start that book club. “Will you have to make other changes?” she asks. “Is the house too big?”
Take a good look at your relationships. “If you’re in a couple, it’s the perfect time to think about whether intimacy has been neglected, what your libido levels are like or whether there’s something the two of you could do together, maybe that big trip to the Galapagos,” says Lucy Beresford.
Friends are key. “Try to make some new friends,” she counsels. “It stops you being lonely and gives you the sense that this is not the end of your life, just the end of this particular phase.” Keep in touch with existing pals, picking one or two to talk to about the impending departure of your child.
"Look at purpose, look at people and look at planning ahead"
“And that first week they’re not there, do something every day,” Thompson says. “Go for coffee with a friend, to the gym, do a cycle ride, walk a dog, decorate—whatever you’re into.”
A massive no-no is confiding your fears to your child. “They absolutely shouldn’t be having to get you through it,” says Thompson.
“Be able to have gentle conversations with them,” adds Willis Atherley-Bourne. “For example, saying, ‘I’m really going to miss you but I’m looking forward to not picking up your bits and pieces.’” He also recommends setting a regular time in the week to chat to your child once they’re away.
Above all, practise self care. “Make sure you have great sleep and good nutrition, because even if you’re overwhelmed, you’ve got the basics to help you survive,” says Beresford.
As for my empty nest, I decided to replaster and repaint it. I’ve also taken the French exam I’d been meaning to sit for years and go out regularly with friends now I no longer have to prepare meals for my son. He’s moved out and we’ve both moved on. 
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