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Coping with empty nest syndrome

Parents react differently to their children leaving home. For some it’s a new chance at freedom, but for others it’s a lonely time of uncertainty and loss. Here’s how to deal with this new life phase.

It seems like just the other day that you held your newborn baby in your arms, wondering how on earth you were going to cope with the adjustment of being a parent, and now you’re waving them off as they head out into the big, wide world. The time when your children are wholly dependent on you is fleeting, and for some parents, the transition is hard to bear.

What is empty nest syndrome?

When children leave their homes, parents can go through a period similar to the grieving process. ‘The children have been the focus of the household for 18 or more years, and suddenly that focus is gone,’ explains Johan Lombaard, Clinic Manager at the Life Mental Health Unit at Life Brackenview. ‘Parents no longer have the control they had, and some may develop feelings of anxiety and sadness.’

Anita Human, Unit Manager at the Life Mental Health Unit, Life Poortview, agrees. ‘Empty nest syndrome is not found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, so it’s not a diagnosed psychiatric disorder, but rather a psychological phenomenon that manifests during a specific life phase.’

How common is it?

Because an adult child moving out of the house is seen as a healthy step towards independence, many people experiencing empty nest syndrome don’t seek help, so the true magnitude is not documented. ‘It is a bigger occurrence than society is aware of,’ Johan says, and while mothers are most commonly treated, it’s not only they who experience it. ‘With fathers taking on a more active role as primary caregivers, we are seeing more and more men experiencing the symptoms too,’ he explains.

What are the signs?

The change in family dynamics can create negative emotions such as depression, anxiety, emptiness, feelings of loss and loneliness.

‘When parents have a sense of hopelessness or helplessness, or lose interest in daily activities, it is important to seek help,’ says Anita. ‘Other worrying symptoms or warning signs might include turning to negative coping strategies such as alcohol and over-the-counter medication. Other relationships might be affected, and it can lead to marital conflict.’

Ultimately, it’s important to know that the feelings of loss you experience when your grown-up child leaves home are real, and people often underestimate the effect. ‘Try to approach it like any other major life change. Talk about it, be honest about your feelings and get help if your feelings start to disrupt your everyday life,’ says Johan 

Dealing with empty nest syndrome

  • Anticipate that the empty nest stage may happen and prepare well in advance.
  • Take up a hobby.
  • Spend time with friends and family before your child leaves the house to establish healthy behaviour patterns.
  • Talk to friends and family about your feelings of loss and anxiety.
  • Create a schedule with your child, setting out how often they’ll call and when you’ll spend holidays together.
  • Don’t be afraid to seek help.

The information is shared on condition that readers will make their own determination, including seeking advice from a healthcare professional. E&OE. Life Healthcare Group Ltd does not accept any responsibility for any loss or damage suffered by the reader as a result of the information provided.