While some parents may experience sadness and depression when their children grow up and move out, many more enjoy the positive changes in parenting that follow.
Medically Reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
The phrase “empty nest syndrome” brings to mind images of sad women wringing their hands and trying to ignore the empty bedroom down the hall. While some parents may experience sadness and even depression when a child leaves home, many more enjoy the positive changes in parenting that come with a so-called empty nest.
There is an upside to watching your children leave home, says Christine M. Proulx, PhD, assistant professor in the department of human development and family studies at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Proulx and her research team have conducted interviews with couples whose oldest child recently left the home and has found that empty nest benefits include:
- Pleasure over the way your child has grown up and matured
- Deepening friendship with your child as you enter a new type of relationship
- Enjoying their adventures, as well as your own
- Improved mood and a sense of well-being since you have fewer daily parenting responsibilities
- An opportunity for you and your partner to focus on each other more
- Time to travel and do activities that you have put aside because of your children
- A chance to explore a new hobby or get involved with a cause
Empty Nest: Mixed Emotions
As with all your parenting experiences, you may find the empty nest stirs a range of emotions, from pleased and proud to sad and worried. That’s normal, says Proulx.
“Parents may feel excitement about their children’s new adventures, sadness about not seeing their child as often or about letting go, worry or concern about their child — hoping they lock the door at night, that they make good decisions — pleasure at watching their child become more like an adult and being able to interact with them in a more adult-like manner,” she says.
Proulx’s research team interviewed both mothers and fathers about their view of the transition to an empty nest. Overall, she says, the feedback was positive, contrary to the stereotype many of us have.
“For many parents, it was clear they enjoyed interacting with their child in a more adult-to-adult or peer-to-peer manner, or even in more of a mentoring rather than an active parenting manner,” she says. “Many parents enjoyed watching their child’s increased maturity and independence. I think many parents enjoyed the way they could talk with their child as the child’s maturity increased.”
Proulx’s study is one of the few to include fathers, who can be just as affected by the empty nest as mothers. Talking to both parents yielded a more complete picture of the changing parenting relationship, she says. For example, in one case, the mother said she was saddened by the fact that she and her daughter were speaking less frequently, but the father reported pleasure over the fact that his daughter was turning more often to him for advice. On the whole, she says, fathers and mothers reported similar feelings about the situation.
If the Empty Nest Brings You Down
Even though there are opportunities to feel positive about your changing parenting roles, you may, indeed, feel sadness and grief over the change. You don’t have to go through these hard times alone.
“I do think parents who are struggling would find it helpful to talk to other parents who are going through, or have gone through, this transition. Every family will experience it differently, but there’s a lot of common ground,” Proulx says.
If you cannot shake your feelings of sadness or you find it hard to get motivated and excited about your own life despite the empty nest, it may be time to talk to a psychotherapist who has experience with these issues.
Learn more in the Everyday Health Women’s Health Center