The Psychological Experience of the “Empty Nest”
The concept of the “empty nest” is more discussed today than ever before. This concept has finally garnered the interest of researchers after more and more parents have reported increases in internal turmoil once their children are launched from the home. Empty Nest Syndrome (ENS) is a non-clinical term some clinicians use to refer to a group of symptoms including grief, sadness, loss of direction, loneliness, anxiety, and role confusion that arise in parents when their children grow up and leave the home (Bouchard, 2014; Grover & Dang, 2013). This distressing psychological experience has become more prevalent in contemporary society as the extended families of the past have become less of a reality, prompting loosened relationships between family members (Chen et al., 2012). Further complicating this experience are the undercurrents of marriage that suddenly obtain more focus once children are removed from the day-to-day discourse of a partnership. Many couples find the empty nest experience to be freeing, thus increasing travel and leisure time, as well as overall marital satisfaction. Other marriages endure complicated adjustment phases wherein the roles shift from being a primary mother or father to being a primary husband or wife. Therefore, some couples may struggle in adjusting to a new marital life instead of a life missing children. Interestingly, husbands whose partners did not adjust well to marriage after successful launching of children showed less satisfaction with their lives (Bouchard, 2014). In contrast, women were not significantly affected by their partners’ adjustment to married life after children were launched (Bouchard & McNair, 2016). This finding draws attention to the necessity for careful attunement to marital concerns after children leave the home. It is widely presumed that grandchildren offer a chance to reset parental dynamics in empty-nesters, thus giving them higher meaning and purpose once more. However, studies show that grandparenting is not associated with greater life satisfaction, aside from grandmothers who may show increased life appreciation as their contact with grandchildren increases (Bouchard & McNair, 2016). In fact, a large Australian study including 381 women with an average age of 49 years old, researchers found that once children left home women experienced increased happiness and overall well-being, with a significant reduction in the number of daily hassles (Dennerstein et al., 2002). Therefore, it may be essential for empty-nesters to direct their focus and care inward for fulfillment as opposed to outward in the form of relationships – a intuitively strange consideration many parents have unknowingly suppressed in the past while raising and providing for their children.
On the other hand, another large study of 590 empty-nesters in rural China towns/villages revealed that elder adults whose children had been launched endure significant increases in loneliness that were buffered against with increased participation in social activities with friends, neighbors, and family members (Liu & Guo, 2007). This finding parallels that of youngest siblings, particularly girls, who are also shown to be at an increased risk for loneliness and sadness when the older sibling(s) departs the home (Rosen et al., 2002). These finding may be particularly important to consider, as many parents may be navigating their own psychological discomfort when older siblings leave the home, and may overlook the observed internal turmoil of younger siblings. An effective manner of assisting younger children in this scenario is through the act of mentalizing whereby parents may inquisitively imagine and discuss with their children the underlying thoughts, feelings, desires, motivations, wishes, anticipations, and reasonings that underlie their manifest behaviors. In other words, if parents attempt to curiously understand their childrens’ mental states, feelings of psychological proximity and social trust and intimacy emerge, thus buffering against sadness, loneliness and general stress (Bateman & Fonagy, 2019).
Research has proven that effective manners for empty-nesters in combatting negative emotions after launching children include joining social activities in local communities or governments (Chen et al., 2012). Further, promising research shows that writing and rewriting self-narratives that honor the roles they had as a parent can help them reconnect with positive, subdued aspects of their “self” that may be adaptive and relevant to life after the launching phase (Mount & Moas, 2015). In other words, by repeatedly reconstructing a story of one’s history as a parent, one may discover themes and values that emerge and appear to persist throughout their parenting experience. These recognized values may then be actively applied to one’s lifestyle during the empty nest phase in other life areas – thus allowing empty nesters to implement the same, familiar values held dear for so long.
ENS appears to be on the rise in contemporary society. Thankfully, the effective nature of mental health services in contemporary society can aid those who are overburdened by the mental strain of children leaving home. Individuals such as Ginny Brzezinski (2018) of Know Your Value are propelled to share their experience with a larger audience in hopes of relaying a shared experience that speaks to many. Her heartwarming article with how she feels one can deal with empty nest syndrome can be found here and can be a wonderful place to start: https://www.nbcnews.com/know-your-value/feature/handling-empty-nest-syndrome-ncna879216. However, if you feel your symptoms persist to distressing levels, please consider consulting with the clinicians at Town Center Psychology, and know that you are not alone!
Bateman, A. & Fonagy, P. (2019). Handbook of mentalizing in mental health practice: Second edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association
Bouchard, G. (2014). How do parents react when their children leave home? An integrative review. Journal of Adult Development, 21, 69-7. doi: 10.1007/s10804-013-9180-8
Bouchard, G. & McNair, J. L. (2016). Dyadic examination of the influence of family relationships on life satisfaction at the empty-nest stage. Journal of Adult Development, 23, 174-182. doi: 10.1007/s10804-016-9233-x
Brzezinksi, G. (2018, June 1). How to deal with empty nest syndrome. Know Your Value. https://www.nbcnews.com/know-your-value/feature/handling-empty-nest-syndrome-ncna879216
Chen, D., Yang, X., Aagard, S. D. (2012). The empty nest syndrome: Ways to enhance quality of life. Educational Gerontology, 38, 520-529. doi: 10.1080/03601277.2011.595285
Dennerstein, L., Dudley, E, & Guthrie, J. (2002). Empty nest or revolving door? A prospective study of women’s quality of life in midlife during the phase of children leaving and re- entering the home. Psychological Medicine, 32, 545-550. doi: 10.1017/S0033291701004810
Grover, N, & Dang, P. (2013). Empty nest syndrome vs empty nest trigger: Psychotherapy formulation based on systemic approach – A descriptive case study. Psychological Studies, 58, 285-288. doi: 10.1007/s12646-013-0207-9
Liu, L. J. & Guo, Q. (2007). Loneliness and health-related quality of life for the empty nest elderly in the rural area of a mountainous county in china. Quality of Life Research, 16, 1275-1280. doi: 10.1007/s11136-007-9250-0
Mount, S. D. & Moas, S. (2015). Re-purposing the “empty nest”. Journal of Family Psychotherapy, 26, 247-252. doi: 10.1080/08975353.2015.1067536
Rosen, E., Ackerman, L., & Zosky, D. (2002). The sibling empty nest syndrome: The experience of sadness as siblings leave the family home. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 6, 65-80.