On the 28th September 2011, I appeared on BBC Radio Nottingham to talk about ‘Empty Nest Syndrome’ – that terrible feeling of loss that parents and carers can feel when their children leave home for the first time.
So what is Empty Nest Syndrome, and why can it hit us so hard?
Empty Nest Syndrome is a set of feelings that parents may feel when their child or children are preparing to leave, or have left the family home, either to go to University or to get married.
Some parents describe these feelings as feeling like someone has died; they may find themselves going into their children’s bedroom just to feel closer to their children, or throwing themselves into a whirlwind of activity to block it all out.
This is perfectly normal. For 18 years or more your child will have taken up a huge amount of psychological and physical energy and now, which can feel like far too soon or quickly, it feels like they’ve gone forever and parents can feel quite bereft and hollow and empty.
However, if these feelings mean that you can’t carry on with your every day activities, if you find you are crying all the time and are avoiding spending time with friends and family, it is time to seek professional help.
Why do we feel Empty Nest Syndrome?
Two reasons:- If you look at animals in the wild, their offspring can often walk within hours of birth and they’re living relatively independently fairly soon. In contrast, as a species, we’re really very vulnerable for a long time as children. We can’t walk away from danger for quite some time and are very dependent on our parents for several years. Therefore, a very strong bond needs to develop in order to keep us safe. When children leave home it is a loss, and parents do need to acknowledge the grief they feel about this.
Secondly, children moving away is a change: it’s a change in our relationship with them, a change in our living arrangements, a change in how we see ourselves. And we’re not terribly good with change – even if it is a change which we know will be ultimately good for our children and ourselves –that change is a loss which can bring on the grieving process.
There may of course, be other things going on too. Rather than just the change in our relationship with our children, there may be a real fear about the state of our relationship with our partner. I’ve heard people say “What will be talk about?” and there can be a real fear of what it will be like with just the two of you. All those years you’ve had another being to focus on and now he or she isn’ t there. If you like, there’s less to get in the way of the relationship now.
To feel these things again is perfectly natural and it just takes a while to adjust to this change in your relationship again, just like it did when you first had children. However, the key is communication between you and your partner and if you do feel that there are real difficulties around this, please do go and see a counsellor or go to Relate.
How long will it last?
That’s impossible to say because everyone will feel it differently. What we do know is that preparing yourself for this change helps you to move through it and accept this transition quicker.
What can you do to prepare?
- It’s important to start thinking about this before you find yourself driving down the motorway on a Sunday afternoon with your child and half the contents of their bedroom in your car. Talk to your partner and to a trusted friend before hand.
- Acknowledge your feelings – don’t try and hide them and feel ashamed that you’re not coping as well as you thought you would. I ask my clients to try not to think of a pink elephant and then ask them what they automatically think of. Trying to shove feelings away doesn’t work – allow yourself to have them. Indeed, one minute you may find yourself sitting in your child’s empty room feeling very emotional, the next minute you may feel OK. It’s inevitable and it does get better. However, if you start to feel that your useful life has ended, you’re crying all the time and these feelings are stopping you from living your usual life, then it is time to seek professional help.
- There must have been times during the last years when you’ve really wanted to do things which you know you wouldn’t be able to do. Before your child leaves make a list of all the things you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t been able to. Maybe you’ve always wanted to travel, or take up a new hobby. Now is the time. Do some research and plan how and when you’re going to do these.
- Remember that your child leaving home doesn’t mean that they’re dead. Keep the lines of communication open. Use email or Skype or text to keep in touch. And before you know it they’ll be back with a huge bag of washing for you to do!
Here are a couple of books that people may find useful.
The Empty Nest: When Children Leave Home. Shelley Bovey
Chicken Soup for the Soul: Empty Nesters: 101 Stories about Surviving and Thriving When the Kids Leave Home (Chicken Soup for the Soul). Jack Canfield