So the day has finally come for your last child to leave the proverbial nest and fly away to college, a new job, or any number of adventures.
As you help them pack up, shop for new gear, or enjoy your last family dinner for a while, you might notice a number of emotions bubbling to the surface of your thoughts: pride, anxiety, and maybe a touch of sadness. Once you wave goodbye, you may turn back to your suddenly spacious home and wonder, “Now what?”
For many parents, the post-parental stage — which begins once the last child has left home — offers them a chance to explore adult life with more free time and fewer everyday responsibilities.
Other parents find it more difficult to adjust to this new phase. You might, for instance, begin to notice feelings of loneliness and depression, especially if you now live alone or feel as if you’ve lost your sense of purpose.
This experience is often referred to as empty nest syndrome, and it can sometimes affect your emotional health and day-to-day activities. But there’s a lot you can do to ease the transition and find new meaning as you enter this new stage of life.
Read on for an in-depth exploration of empty nest syndrome, including its causes, potential effects, and how to navigate it.
Up until the
But as family sizes shrank and cultural values changed, it became more common — in some societies and cultures — for parents to live alone after their children grew up and moved out.
Research from the 1970s then popularized the idea of an empty nest syndrome by suggesting that parents, mostly mothers, tended to fall into existential despair once they no longer had children around to dote on.
However, according to more modern research from 2016, empty nest syndrome may feature more in imagination than reality.
Researchers have criticized the original studies for limiting their research to middle-class housewives with severe depression symptoms — a group that does not accurately represent the population as a whole.
Some experts believe empty nest syndrome doesn’t exist at all, and that the symptoms associated with it relate to undiagnosed depression, anxiety, or hormone-related conditions.
When the empty nest doesn’t stay empty
Economic turmoil, housing shortages, and other issues have made it more common for younger adults to live at home.
According to the 2021 U.S. Census, 58% of adults ages 18–24 and 17% of adults 25–34 lived at home with their parents.
According to a 2020 study, living in an “empty nest” does not pose a threat to older parents’ happiness unless they already experienced social isolation. What’s more, 2009 research involving Canadian empty nesters suggests most parents experience positive psychological changes after their kids leave home.
There are several potential benefits of the post-parental stage:
Juggling family grocery shopping and meal prep, extracurricular activities and rides to friends’ houses, and homework help can take up a lot of time. As a busy parent, you might have found it tough to carve out time to spend with a romantic partner. Now, you have the time — and the privacy — to reboot your sex life.
Once your children have left, you may realize you have a lot more resources to dedicate to your own needs and desires.
Better relationships with your kids
You may find it easier to relate to your kids as adults when you’re no longer responsible for their laundry. Plus, they may have a new appreciation for all the work you put into feeding and sheltering them once they start paying rent and making their own meals.
Mutual respect and appreciation can go a long way toward smoothing out conflicts.
Raising a child is no small feat, regardless of what’s happening in the world around you — but parenting during a pandemic proved particularly challenging. No matter the circumstances, you deserve congratulations for helping your children become independent adults.
The departure of your child, or children, may also prompt unwanted changes at home. This transition may feel somewhat bittersweet, but it might also feel deeply distressing.
You might experience some of the following:
- Sorrow: It’s natural to miss your child, even when you realize they need to live their own life. Your home may seem quiet, lonely, or even feel less like home without them. You may go through a grieving process as you mark the end of an era.
- Anxiety: Now that you can’t keep up with your kid’s day-to-day life, you may worry if they’re eating well, getting to bed on time, and staying out of trouble. As a result, you might feel the urge to call or text frequently to check on them. Wanting to stay involved in their life could eventually lead you toward the helicopter parent route, where you try to manage their lives from a distance.
- Existential doubt: Your role as a parent may make up a significant part of your identity. Once your kids leave home, then, you may feel somewhat empty, or at a loss for what to do next — something like an actor who’s said their last line in a play.
- Relationship issues: The uncertainty of this transition may add tension to your relationship with your partner. While your kids live at home, issues like poor communication or unsatisfying sex may not seem breakup-worthy. But once the kids strike out on their own, you may suddenly have to consider the shape of your new lives alone together, and those issues you swept under the rug may start popping back up.
A number of factors may contribute to empty nest syndrome, including:
During the parenting years, you may have submerged yourself in the day-to-day buzz of supporting your kids and keeping the household running. Consequently, you may have had less time to pursue your own interests or relationships outside your immediate family.
When you reach the empty nest stage, then, you may need some time to explore and reawaken those parts of your identity that exist outside of parenthood.
Parent-child relationships may involve fierce levels of conflict, especially during the teenage years. If your child left home on bad terms, that can absolutely throw a shadow over your empty nest.
You may regret lost opportunities to connect with your child and repair the rifts in your relationship. Or you may worry your child won’t come back for visits.
Fear of separation
Even if you and your child have an incredibly close relationship, their departure from the family home naturally creates some physical and emotional distance.
You may begin to worry this gap will only grow larger over time — that this person who once made up a significant chunk of your world will only return home a few times a year, like holidays and special occasions.
Concern about your child’s choices
Perhaps your child has left home to pursue what you consider an unrealistic career, or live with a partner you dislike or have concerns about. You might, quite naturally, feel worried, especially if you perceive their departure from the nest as more of a freefall than a flight.
Research in 2016 suggests you’re more likely to experience empty nest syndrome if your child leaves outside the typical timeframe in your culture, or when their reasons for leaving don’t align with social norms.
As noted above, much of the early research on empty nest syndrome involved participants who had spent time receiving inpatient treatment for depression.
Some experts believe empty nest syndrome relates to preexisting depression. To put it simply, the stress of a child leaving home triggers a mood episode, which may involve symptoms like melancholy, agitation, and sleeplessness.
Mid- and late-life changes
Depending on when your kid leaves home, the empty nest stage could fall in line with other life milestones, such as:
- Menopause or andropause: Hormonal shifts can often contribute to irritability, depression, and other mood symptoms.
- Retirement: Your job can serve as another source of status and social connection, so halting your career and parenthood at the same time can prompt you to question your sense of purpose.
- Losing your own parents: If your kids leave home around the same time as your parents pass away, you may feel incredibly isolated as you cope with grief and the loss of your main support system.
Any of these changes could increase the stress of transitioning to the empty nest stage.
Even when empty nest syndrome does lead to unpleasant or uncomfortable emotions, it can help to remember that these feelings won’t last forever.
In the meantime, you can do a number of things to help your empty nest feel like home again:
- Keep in touch with your children: Your child may no longer live at home, but you can still interact with them regularly. Consider setting up a weekly or monthly video call to catch up, or ask your kid if they mind emailing or texting every few days.
- Put yourself first: As you grow older, you continue growing as a person — and now, you might have plenty of time to try out new hobbies or exercise programs, explore new cuisines your kids had no interest in, or take those 3-day camping trips you always dreamed about.
- Spread your social circle: Adult friendships can do a lot to bring the spark back into your life and fend off boredom. It can also help to lean on other family members during this time, including your partner (if you have one), parents or siblings, and other loved ones.
- Consider a pet: If you really need to scratch that caregiving itch, consider adopting a furry friend. A
2020 studyfound dog ownership improved depression, anxiety, and loneliness associated with empty nesting. And of course, walking a dog helps you stay active and gets you out of the house, which could help you meet new people.
It’s absolutely natural to have some mild, temporary feelings of sadness or loneliness after your children leave. On the other hand, if you experience ongoing distress that disrupts your everyday life and activities, it may be worth considering professional support.
Reaching out to a therapist may be a good next step if you:
- find it difficult to enjoy your usual activities
- feel unable to connect with loved ones as you typically would
- have trouble motivating yourself to do basic self-care, like eating meals or showering
- feel overwhelmed with regret, longing, or resentment when thinking about your child
- notice an increase in conflict with your partner
- feel as if your life is “all downhill from here” or no longer has meaning
The right therapist can help you identify and cope with powerful emotions and explore options for making the most of your post-parenting life.
Sending your children off to college, careers, and life with their own partners can be a bittersweet experience. You might thrive right away as you enter the post-parental stage, but you could also feel a little lost, or grapple with feelings of anxiety and depression.
Without a doubt, it may take some time to settle into a new daily pattern. Before long, though, you may find yourself enjoying even more of what life has to offer.
That said, if feelings of loss, emptiness, or other emotional distress linger or get worse over time, support can make a difference. Connecting with a therapist, loved ones, or a support group can help remind you that although your kids may have flown the coop, your nest isn’t necessarily empty.
Emily Swaim is a freelance health writer and editor who specializes in psychology. She has a BA in English from Kenyon College and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. In 2021, she received her Board of Editors in Life Sciences (BELS) certification. You can find more of her work on GoodTherapy, Verywell, Investopedia, Vox, and Insider. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.