5 Tips for Empty Nesters

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A child leaving home for the first time can cause parents feelings of both excitement and grief. Learn some tips to cope with these mixed emotions.

It is common for parents to experience feelings of depression, grief, or anxiety when a child leaves home for the first time, a sensation known as empty nest syndrome. While not a clinical diagnosis, many adults suffer these painful emotions while also reconciling feelings of excitement and pride over their child’s new-found independence.

Hillary Van Horn-Gatlin, PhD

Hillary Van Horn-Gatlin, PhD, health psychologist at the Kaiser Permanente South Sacramento Medical Center, meets with patients regularly to talk about this complex, bittersweet life transition. She offers these 5 tips on how to cope.

Feel All the Feels

When a child first leaves, sometimes just being at home can be painful.

“The house becomes a catalog of losses,” explained Dr. Van Horn-Gatlin. “There’s all the laundry that you’re no longer doing; there’s the extra food you keep cooking even though there’s no one at the table to eat it.”

She tells parents to expect to feel sad and embrace any feelings of loss or grief — it’s normal and healthy.

“It’s also important to note that men and women tend to express empty nest syndrome differently,” she added. “Women tend to seek support through their friends. Men tend to throw themselves into work. It can cause tension in a family, but it’s important to recognize that everyone has their own unique way of reacting to the transition.”

Schedule Some Fun

Parents who have spent most of their spare time involved in a child’s activities or social networks are especially impacted by empty nest syndrome.

“Suddenly, that adult is faced with free time that they hadn’t experienced in years — and they don’t know what to do with it.”

Dr. Van Horn-Gatlin suggests planning ahead and scheduling some fun things to do once a child leaves, like a vacation, an interesting class, or even a regular night out with a spouse or friends.

“This is also a great time to revisit a long-term goal that was put off during the child-rearing years. Write that book. Go on that backpacking trip. Reconnect with whatever it is that makes you tick.”

Follow the Child’s Lead

“It’s important to let the child set the tone for the transition,” said Dr. Van Horn-Gatlin. “Does your child need more or less support? Do they need help with big things, like handling insurance? Or maybe smaller things, like buying sheets?

She encourages parents to check in with their child frequently to see what they need — it may be surprising to see what tasks they’d rather handle on their own or what they’d like additional support with.

Embrace Technology

Even if technologies such as Skype or FaceTime seem daunting, Dr. Van Horn-Gatlin encourages parents to give them a try.

“Technology can really make the separation more doable — especially if the child is far away and frequent trips aren’t realistic,” she said.

Scheduling regular check-ins can also help. “Try setting up a time to talk every Sunday evening or some other time that is mutually convenient for the whole family. Even if it’s just for 10 minutes, that connection — beyond an email or text — can be meaningful for everyone.”

Start a New Tradition

While a family schedule might feel very different, that doesn’t mean the end of fun, regular visits.

“Start a new family tradition,” said Dr. Van Horn-Gatlin. “Try planning something during a college’s parents’ weekend or try spending the holiday break in a new place. Having something the whole family can look forward to really helps make the separation more bearable.”

Suffering from empty nest syndrome? Learn more about Kaiser Permanente’s mental health services

Discussion6 Comments

  1. It is a difficult time, where you hope all the advice you have given your child over the years has really sunk in to him or her. While you are not out of their life completely, they now have more time alone, and will be faced with their own decisions on how to do things. When they were still at home, it was a bit more easier to stay involved with their affairs, but not always. Now, they will learn more about responsibility, although hopefully they know that their parents are still there for them, if needed.

  2. In the beginning it was exciting to see my 18-year-old move into his dorm. It has just been a week and I feel like it has been an emotional roller coaster ride. There are just high and low moments. This article helps.

  3. “Feel the feels”… what a beautiful way of referring to this very tender time of life. Thank you for bringing this out into our world, Anna!

  4. Never occurred to me this might be part of my ongoing mental health issues. I’ve always defined myself by my daughters, but now they are gone. One moved to Boston and the other to California. I’m in Colorado. I don’t know who I am without my daughters.

  5. Maria C Gonzales

    Thank you. This article brought some light into my life. My 19-year-old son, soon to be 20, joined the U.S. Army and has depolyed to Korea. The transition has been very hard for the both of us. We are trying everything you just explained in your article and we are feeling much better. I recently relocated and accepted a new position. So not only did my son deploy, but I moved without my 18-year-old daughter. She just graduated high school and decided to stay in the Central Valley… I do have the empty nest syndrome, and stay happy with prayer and close family and friends. Its been about 6 months since my move and it is not getting any easier, but I found ways to cope and get through my sad times. It is a difficult transition for parents.

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