Empty Nest Syndrome: How to Cope When the Kids Flee the Coop

You may feel a sense of grief and loss when the last child leaves the home.

Girl packing luggage in car and waving bye to sad parents

Verywell / Zoe Hansen

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The empty nest syndrome refers to a sense of grief and loss a parent feels when their last child leaves home. While empty nest syndrome is not a formal diagnosis in the DSM, it is a common phenomenon that many parents undergo when the youngest child leaves the family for work, further studies, or for the next phase of their life in a new dwelling.

From the day the kids were born, you have changed diapers, potty trained them, taught them how to ride bikes, and helped them through the hormonal rollercoaster of puberty. 

Then the time comes when your job is done, and the kids flee the nest. They have the skills, abilities, and experience to take care of themselves and start their lives as fully grown humans. Experiencing the empty nest syndrome is completely normal, and there are effective strategies to help cope with those feelings.

What Are the Symptoms of Empty Nest Syndrome?

When children leave the nest, it can feel oddly bittersweet. It can create an overwhelming sense of loss and grief. 

Some of the common symptoms of empty nest syndrome include the following:

Feeling Very Emotional

Although you may have a partner and friends, it can feel distressing to walk by your child’s old empty room. You’re reminded of what once was, and this can bring up feelings of loneliness. If you see something that reminds you of your children or parenthood, it can bring up deep feelings of sadness, loss, grief, fear, pain, anger, and frustration. 

Feeling Empty and Lacking Purpose

For the past 18 or so years, a huge part of your identity may have been related to raising your children. Your days could have been brimming with school drop-offs and pick-ups, dentist appointments, birthday parties, curfews, and screentime limits. Now that they are more self-sufficient, you may feel like you’ve lost a sense of yourself and your life’s purpose.

Difficulty Focusing and Always Thinking About Your Children

You may feel restless and irritable during the day. When the kids were home, you were constantly picking up after them, thinking about their schedules, doing their laundry, and stocking snacks. But now it might feel uncomfortable to sit still and read a book. Your mind wanders easily. You’re feeling anxious as you’re constantly worried about what your child is up to and whether they need your help.

Having Relationship Problems

Now that the kids are out of the home, you may have more time and space with your partner. You may not know how to interact with each other without the children around, which can stir up relationship problems. You may start to wonder what you have in common and whether you only stayed together for the kids.

If one partner is having an easier time transitioning, it can make the other feel alone and resentful. The relationship can fall apart if the two of you are not able to reconnect and move forward together in the new normal. 

How Long Does It Take to Get Over Empty Nest Syndrome?

It is suggested that it can take between 18 months and two years for someone to adjust to the new life stage, however, the time it takes to transition into the empty nest life can vary from person to person. For some people, it may be short-lived, and they are able to adjust within a few months without negatively impacting their health. 

However, for others, it can take many years to get over empty nest syndrome. It can be particularly challenging if they are also struggling financially, dealing with health issues, and/or facing other stressful life events such as the loss of a loved one, downsizing, moving, or job loss.

What are the Psychological Effects of Empty Nest Syndrome

Empty nest anxiety and depression can also occur. The impact of your child leaving can cause intense worrying and frustrations over a lack of control. You may be thinking about your relationship with your child and regretting how you raised them. You may feel angry at yourself for not spending more time with them.

You may be afraid that you are aging and your child is not going to be around to take care of you. You may not think your child is making the right decisions in life. Perhaps you don’t agree with their career path, where they live, what they are studying or who they have chosen as a life partner. 

It’s normal to feel all these emotions during this time. Do not try to suppress or numb the pain as it can make them feel worse; however, if those feelings are starting to affect your normal activities and ability to take care of yourself, it may be a sign to seek professional help.

It’s important to speak with your healthcare provider if you’re consistently experiencing symptoms of depression or your grief has gotten worse.

If you or a loved one are struggling with empty nest syndrome, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

How to Cope With Empty Nest Syndrome

Your children have grown. You did what you could in raising them into well-adjusted and responsible adults. This is an emotionally and mentally difficult time. Here are some ways to cope with empty nest syndrome:

  • Take care of yourself: This is the moment you’ve been waiting for. You now have the freedom and flexibility to go as you please without taking into consideration your children’s schedules. Practice self-care and feed your mind, body, and spirit to your heart’s content. Get massages. Pamper yourself. Meditate without interruptions. Enjoy long walks. Savor nutrient-dense meals.
  • Get active: If exercise were a prescription, every doctor would prescribe it. Physical activity in older adults has been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer, improve mental health, quality of life and well-being, and delay the onset of dementia.
  • Stay connected with your kids: Your children may not be physically present in your home; however, you can still keep in touch with them. Don’t be afraid to learn new communication methods, such as social media and apps, to connect with your child on their level. Schedule weekly or monthly video calls. If they live locally, you can meet up for coffee and chat. It can be a wonderful opportunity to get to know your child and develop a peer-to-peer friendship with them.
  • Pick up new hobbies: If you’ve always wanted to care for a garden, write a novel or learn how to play the guitar, you now have the time to start those endeavors. Explore new pastimes and rediscover old passions to help reshift your focus on this positive new chapter in your life.
  • Reconnect with friends or make new ones: Gone are the weekend soccer tournaments, evening piano lessons, and last-minute bake sales. Your calendar has opened up. Expand your social circle. Text that old friend you’ve been meaning to connect with. Join a club or volunteer your time and meet new people.

Starting the post-parenting life can be scary and distressing. It can take a toll on your relationships, mental health, and emotional well-being. However, empty nest syndrome doesn’t have to impact your life in the long term negatively. Prioritizing yourself, finding new ways to fill the void, and redefining your relationships can help make the transition less overwhelming.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Katharine Chan, MSc, BSc, PMP
Katharine is the author of three books (How To Deal With Asian Parents, A Brutally Honest Dating Guide and A Straight Up Guide to a Happy and Healthy Marriage) and the creator of 60 Feelings To Feel: A Journal To Identify Your Emotions. She has over 15 years of experience working in British Columbia's healthcare system.