By James Ellis, Ph.D.
For those of us who are parents, the “empty nest” is the period of life when our children come of age and leave home, usually to go to college or work. This period of life transition may leave us with a good deal of pride as we witness our children’s independence, but it is often accompanied by feelings of sadness, loneliness, and sometimes depression. Child rearing is an all-out prodigal investment that can never truly be repaid. When we launch our children, we may feel like bystanders at best and no longer needed at worst. So, as with any loss of this magnitude, we need to give ourselves the time and space to grieve and heal.
Some parents find the empty nest harder than others. For example, people who have had painful experiences of separations in the past may bring high anxiety to the looming separation of the empty nest, while people living in enmeshed family systems may not have learned how to differentiate from their children and may find themselves clinging rather than letting go. In both situations, parents may benefit from guidance about healthy ways to support their children’s transition to adulthood. It is normal for the empty nest to bring heightened emotions to the surface, including loss and uncertainty as our role as a parent changes from one of overseeing children’s lives to becoming a consultant to them. Whatever the root causes of our anxieties,parents should be encouraged during this launching phase to work toward seeing their children not just as extensions of themselves but as separate individuals in their own right, who have their own hopes and dreams.
While it is important to claim our experience of sadness, it is also important to realize that the empty nest does not mark the end of the relationship with our children but rather the end of one chapter in our lives and the beginning of a new one. Now is the time to engage in new activities that establish meaning and purpose for the road ahead. It’s a time to develop friendships and hobbies, pursue career and educational opportunities, or embark on long postponed vacations. It’s a time to enter into a new role with our children.
Perhaps the following ideas can help parents cope with their empty nest experience:
• Stay in touch with your children when they leave home – that’s one of the great advantages of modern technology: Texting and Face time make it easier to keep an emotional connection over long distances.
• Accept your new role – remember your children have their own lives to live and you do too.
• Seek support – don’t isolate yourself with your feelings of loneliness. Get involved. Get involved in your faith community and in community activities. Create new structures of importance for this new chapter of your life. If you need help, remember that therapy and other supports are available.
• Practice gratitude – try to focus on the things you are grateful for instead of pining after things that are no longer available to you.
The empty nest is one of life’s milestones. Like any other transition in life it’s important to acknowledge its sadness, move through the mourning, and choose new adventures, which pave the way for our future self and life. And, if transitioning through this time is difficult, reach out for support or counseling. What we do with our feelings about the empty nest is like so much else in life: This time of life will become what we make of it!