Empty nest syndrome: how to unruffle your feathers and spread your wings

We explore the signs of empty nest syndrome and how you can manage this big life transition

Raising children and being a parent sets us up on a rollercoaster of emotions. One minute you’re feeling the joy and pride of seeing them thrive, the next you’re filled with worry, doubt, and frustration as they veer wildly off-track. A lot can be said about parenting… but no one can say it’s a boring endeavour.

Throughout the journey, there are a number of transitions. One that may take you by surprise is the day your child(ren) leaves home and, suddenly, you’re alone again.

“Some parents may find the departure of their child to school or university a relief, time to get their space back, and get on with the goals they’ve been holding back on during the years of parenting,” life coach Geraldine Macé explains. “For some, however, it leaves a big empty space that they have no idea how to fill – an empty nest.”

Empty nest syndrome is a term used to describe the grief, anxiety, and sadness some parents and caregivers feel at this time. Here are some signs to look out for:

Loss of purpose

A feeling some empty nesters may resonate with is being ‘redundant’. Geraldine notes, “Parents may be feeling incredibly sad with a loss of focus, spending hours on their own thinking back to the times they had with their child. Sometimes that can be with a sense of regret for the things that they did or didn’t do while their child was at home.”

Becoming a parent or caregiver changes your life in a huge way, often having an impact on your sense of identity. So it makes sense that, once you don’t have kids in the house to look after, you may feel a little lost.

Languishing

Some empty nesters may also feel generally ‘off’, noticing a lack of motivation. Perhaps you think you should feel exhilarated now that you have more time to dedicate to yourself but, instead, you struggle to focus and lack the energy to do what you used to. The term languishing is used to articulate this sense of listlessness.

Using numbing techniques

“Other signs to look out for are using things to distract themselves so that they don’t have to think about how they feel, such as with food, drink, shopping, watching TV, gaming, or exercise,” Geraldine says. If you’re trying to distract yourself from the difficult emotions you’re feeling, this could be a sign of empty nest syndrome.

Restlessness

For some parents and caregivers, having an empty nest paves the way for some true relaxation, however, those experiencing empty nest syndrome may find this a struggle. Instead of being able to switch off, empty nesters may find themselves worrying about their child(ren) excessively, and unable to concentrate.

More emotional

There are a range of feelings that can come up during this time, so you may notice your emotions are close to the surface. “As parents try to negotiate this transition, they may find themselves feeling more emotional than normal,” Geraldine explains. “Tears come readily, or they may find that they get angry more easily.”

Relationship conflict

Raising a family will likely have an impact on your romantic relationship, so it may take a little getting used to once the nest is empty. If you live with a partner, and the two of you are now alone, you may find yourself navigating some new territory as you remember what it’s like to be a couple away from the kids. This may bring about some arguments, especially if you have different ideas about how you should be spending your time. Remember, people can react to the same situation in different ways.

How to navigate empty nest syndrome

If you recognise these signs, know you’re not alone in how you’re feeling. “It’s important for parents to know that, whatever they are feeling, it is a perfectly normal and natural reaction to what is a huge change,” Geraldine says. It can be easy to compare our experiences with others, whether that be our partners or friends who have gone through it, but Geraldine explains that this wouldn’t be the best idea.

“We are all unique and individual in the way we experience loss and change, so comparing ourselves to others in the same situation would not be helpful.”

Instead, Geraldine says it can help to focus on self-care. “I would say, above all, that parents try to be kind to themselves during this transition. Look after themselves as they would their own best friend in the same situation.”

Take this time to focus on you, ensuring you’re keeping up with any wellness routines you have in place, such as exercising and prioritising sleep. If you’re finding it hard to get stuck into the hobbies and interests you once had, start slow. Take small steps forwards, and acknowledge that it may take time to feel ‘back to normal’.

Bringing awareness to how you’re feeling is also a helpful tool to manage the transition. “If they feel sad, many parents try just to get on with things as normal, and stuff their emotions down, but it’s OK not to feel OK,” Geraldine explains.

“There are some parents that feel a sense of freedom when their children leave, and then feel guilty. Whatever feelings come up, it’s important to acknowledge them and allow them to be there. It can really help to do some journaling around how they feel at this time. Also, although sharing how they feel with others might feel a bit scary, most close friends and family will welcome the chance to offer support.”

Acknowledging how you feel and finding a way to process it is key. This may be journaling, speaking with friends, or even working with a professional.

Finally, Geraldine suggests making a plan and setting some goals to regain a sense of direction. “Any kind of transition can bring up feelings of uncertainty and loss, but taking some kind of action can help bring a sense of control. Make a plan, set some new goals, visit some new places, learn something new – now is the time to concentrate on you!”

Empty nests may seem like lonely places, but perhaps they can offer the space you need to spread your own wings.

If you would like to find out more, visit the Life Coach Directory or speak to a qualified counsellor.

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