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That Empty Nest Kind of Feeling

This is it. Your child’s room is empty, everything is packed up, and he or she is off to the school of their choice or that fantastic new job.

It’s great, right? After all, it’s a totally normal part of growing up.

But, why do you also feel so sad?

It’s a normative developmental transition, says Dr. Bernard Davidson, a family psychologist at Augusta University Health. But most of us know it as empty nest syndrome. “It can happen with every child who moves on into a new school, work or living arrangement, but the effect can be more pronounced with the last child,” said Davidson. “It’s the beginning of a normative role reversal where parents are finding themselves moving to a peer-to-peer relationship with their child.”

Not every parent goes through empty nest syndrome. But for those who do, it can be a hard time.

Feeling Glad, Feeling Sad

Even if you’ve had fun helping your child pick out that just-right dorm room décor or are bragging to all your friends that your child got into that graduate school, it’s entirely appropriate to have feelings of sadness that your child is growing up and moving away. It can be more difficult for families where life has centered on the child. This can include, says Davidson:

• Families with a stay-at-home mom or stay-at-home dad
• Families with an only child
• Families whose social lives revolve around children’s schedules

While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a close-knit family, it’s a fact that having a child move away can hit these families harder.

“It’s expected to feel some grief and loss from losing that day to day interaction with your kids,” said Davidson. “Some parents can also have feelings of increased awareness of their own mortality and their own aging.”

Also, in most families, one parent usually takes on more of a parental role, so it’s more likely for that person to have more difficulty with the change, even feeling a loss of purpose and meaning.

Here’s What You Can Do—and Not Do

Most moves are planned months in advance, giving you time to prepare. Still, having it actually happen and experiencing that much quieter house can make for a tough transition. Davidson says to look at it as an opportunity: “It’s a time where you can expand your social network, re-engage your relationship with your significant other and make a life for yourself too.”

Because think about this: “Kids will sense if a parent is OK; it doesn’t have to be verbal,” said Davidson. “Kids will also sense if a parent is giving out vibes that their leaving is responsible for a parent being depressed, even if you say, ‘I’m doing OK.’”

Say you haven’t had a vacation alone with your spouse in years or have been waiting “until we grow old” to take a cruise or buy that boat. Guess what? Now may be the perfect time. It’s also a great time to explore new interests and hobbies.

But here’s what not to do: Don’t be a helicopter parent where you’re texting your child 10 times a day. And don’t bottle up your feelings. “Allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling,” said Davidson. “Don’t dwell on, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ It’s not abnormal to be tearful and have sadness.”

However, if you find that your sadness is keeping you from doing things you used to enjoy, if you aren’t performing as you should at work or are missing work, or if you are avoiding friends and loved ones—in other words, if it’s having a major impact on your day-to-day life—it might be a good idea to see a counselor for a short while, who can help you work through these feelings and come up with coping mechanisms. This may be more beneficial to do with your significant other.

“Folks should also realize that feelings of loss fade as you get more accustomed to a quieter house and a life more directed toward fulfilling your own desires,” said Davidson. While it might feel selfish at first, especially if you’re used to putting your child first, letting yourself do what you want really is OK.

If you need a little more convincing, Google the Mississippi couple whose “empty nest” photo shoot recently went viral, full of confetti, huge grins and shots of them jumping in the air because their last child left the roost this past July. “Taking joy together in the growth and positive movement of a child can be a cause for celebration,” said Davidson. “I think that’s just great.”

About the author

Augusta University Health

Based in Augusta, Georgia, Augusta University Health is a world-class health care network, offering the most comprehensive primary, specialty and subspecialty care in the region. Augusta University Health provides skilled, compassionate care to its patients, conducts leading-edge clinical research and fosters the medical education and training of tomorrow’s health care practitioners. Augusta University Health is a not-for-profit corporation that manages the clinical operations associated with Augusta University.