Your babies have somehow morphed it young adults off to university or a new job, and it’s just you. Even if you thought you’d love the time to yourself at last, it’s a big life change.
If you just can’t feel yourself since the kids left, it could be ’empty nest syndrome’. How can you best navigate the effects of this period of transition?
7 Important steps to navigate empty nest syndrome
1. Be honest with how you feel.
As a parent you might be so used to putting yourself last, your instinct can be to deny you are anything other than fine. But denial stops you from moving forward. Worse, you might end up then projecting unresolved feelings on others in ways that are destructive and unhelpful.
Empty nest syndrome is a recognised psychological condition that can can be quite similar in symptoms to mourning. You might experience waves of sadness, find yourself caught up in mood swings, or just feel completely lost at sea. It’s also normal to experience feelings of loneliness, even if you do have a spouse and a social network.
2. Be patient with yourself.
You have spent at least 18 years taking care of someone – adjusting to them being gone will not just take a week or so. In fact some parents find it takes a year or two to adjust.
Children leaving home can often coincide with other life changes too. Women might be going through menopause, and middle age can also be a time major health issues surface and marriages start to show cracks. Or, you might be experiencing a midlife crisis, or retirement. The additional change of a child leaving can cause a snowball affect, so that suddenly you feel overwhelmed. And who wouldn’t, really?
If you find it hard to be patient with yourself’, imagine what you’d say if you were talking to a friend instead. Would you tell him or her to ‘get over it’ and ‘get on out there and get on with it’, or would you tell her to go easy for a bit?
3. Pay attention to your behaviour and choices.
Changes in eating patterns and energy levels can be a sign of sadness or mild depression. Edginess, body tension, and mood swings might point to anger issues or anxiety.
Notice any new and positive behaviours, too. Seeing what things you are now drawn too can help you uncover the ‘you’ you haven’t had time to know before. This helps avoid the identity crisis that empty nest syndrome can trigger.
Suddenly finding yourself doodling? Explore the urge to be creative. Enjoying watching the joggers in the park? Why not try it yourself?
If you find that really you are just looking for anything to do to ‘keep yourself busy’, though, this is a sign you are avoiding facing your emotions and its time to go back to number 1 on the list – facing how you really feel.
4. Put aside preconceived ideas of what comes next.
Perhaps you have said for years as soon as the kids leave home you would travel the world, start painting again like you did in your twenties, or buy that sail boat at last.
But sometimes we use having kids as an excuse not to do things because actually, the truth is we don’t want to really do them. They are either a dream from a person you no longer are, or something you felt you should want but deep down don’t.
So if you do take an art class and find it excruciatingly boring, then put that aside and take notice of what you find yourself drawn to instead. The dance class one room over?
Consider not making any big decisions for at least six months. Making decisions from a place of anxiety sees you more likely to choose things just for their distraction factor, over any real desire to do them. Give yourself time to adjust.
5. Lower your expectations on those around you.
The less we expect from others, the more we can recognise and accept what they actually have to offer.
The biggest mistake that partners and spouses can make is excepting the other to understand just how they feel, just because they are going through the same experience of the kids being gone. Everyone deals with change differently. Working to see each others’ perspective can ensure you don’t push each other away just when you need each others support.
As for your friends, just because you suddenly have more time and are now socially available doesn’t mean they do. And it might be a change for them too, if they saw you infrequently before and now you want to see more of them.
It can be tempting to expect a lot from your kids – phone calls, texts, to be kept in the loop on all their new adventures. But try to give them as much space as you can. Remember, it’s a change for them too, and they have their own adjusting to do.
6. Don’t compare.
Don’t compare how you feel with the way your spouse feels, or your acquaintances whose kids have also left home feel. First of all, just because they appear so together and happy doesn’t mean they are. Second of all, everyone is different. You need to take care of yourself now, not judge yourself.
7. Seek impartial support.
As a parent you can be the one everyone else relies on. So when suddenly it’s you floundering, others might not know how to react, or give you advice that unintentionally feels like a putdown.
A counsellor or psychotherapist is trained to listen carefully and without judgement. Their role is not to tell you what to do, but to ask you good questions so you can figure out yourself what is best for you.
It’s important you seek support if your feelings of restlessness or unhappiness go on for more than a few months, or begin to increase instead of decrease. Life change can trigger previous traumas that have been repressed, which can lead to the following issues:
Professional support is not a ‘magic bullet’. It doesn’t instantly make you better. But it does give you real tools for coping that can serve you for years to come, and can stop a bad few months from becoming a bad few years or more.
At Harley Therapy all our therapists have at least 5 years experience of working with clients experiencing life challenges. We provide services at three London locations as well as worldwide via online therapy.
Do you have a story of surviving empty nest syndrome? Or a tip you want to mention? Share with our readers by commenting below.