How to deal with 'empty nest syndrome' as kids head off to school

·6-min read
A psychologist shares advice on dealing with empty nest anxiety. (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo)
A psychologist shares advice on dealing with empty nest anxiety. (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo)

Tapashi Rabeya's only child, Sam, is just 17, but because he started school early he'll be leaving their New York City home at the end of the summer to attend college about seven hours away in Buffalo. For Rabeya, a divorced single mom who emigrated from Small Heath, England about 18 years ago, Sam's move marks not just her introduction to life as an empty nester, but also her first time living alone, ever. And while she's excited about the friends, experiences and opportunities ahead for her son — "I'm going to live vicariously through him," she says — she's also anxious about the changes to come.

"The closer it gets, it can become daunting," Rabeya tells Yahoo Life. "I'm trying not to think about myself too much, but I feel a big, empty hole in my chest. He's my only child. I've invested every single thing into him."

As graduations get underway and young adults head off to universities or other new adventures away from home, parents like Rabeya are experiencing what clinical psychologist Monica Vermani calls an "emotional rollercoaster."

"Empty nest syndrome is real," she says, explaining that many parents can "feel lost" when their role as primary caregiver changes and the child who for so long was dependent on them for survival no longer needs that level of support.

"You spend so much time and energy in being parents that you do lose parts of your individuation, and you do lose parts of your connectedness to your partner," Vermani adds. "And when your child goes to school, it is about feeling that change of, OK, I've gone from giving myself to this child and helping raise it with the values for them to be self-sufficient, and now I don't know what I'm like without them."

Trusting that your child is ready

Given that instinctive caregiving role, it's also natural for parents to feel worried not only about the uncertainty ahead for themselves but also about the challenges their kids might face. While Vermani notes that there are advantages to modern-day life — such as technology that means your child is just a text or FaceTime call away, no matter how far the distance — the pandemic and recent stretches of social unrest have added a layer of complexity to standard concerns about, say, getting good grades or making new friends. Are they safe? How's their mental health? What sort of future lies ahead?

As parents, it's important to offer support when needed without trying to control everything. A little trust goes a long way.

"The situation is always hard for parents," Vermani says. "We raise these kids that were reliant on us for survival, and now they want to be individuals that are independent of us. So that's about us cutting the cord too, and working on our own anxiety and trusting that we've given the tools and the skills and values to our kids that they can be good human beings who contribute to society and live their own lives. As parents, we always have to remember that our kids are in our company for us to give them the tools and the skillset to be good individuals."

Vered DeLeeuw, a two-time empty nester with two daughters in college, recalls a line from a parenting book by British child psychologist Penelope Leach, to the effect of, "your job as a parent is to work yourself out of the picture — slowly."

It's a sentiment that DeLeeuw has always found "powerful." But while she had no fears about her older daughter being prepared for college life on the other side of the country, it was the young woman's absence that had DeLeeuw struggling with anxious feelings followed by a few months of "deep sadness" after the move itself. She remembers tearing up every time she passed her daughter's empty room.

"You lose part of yourself when a child moves out," says DeLeeuw.

Over time, however, she began to adjust to her daughter not being there; "people are more resilient than they think," DeLeeuw says. And despite her anticipation that she'd go through those emotions all over again when her younger daughter left for college — officially cementing her and her husband as empty nesters — that turned out to be a "much easier" transition, she says.

Leaning into new roles

The loss of that long-held role of caregiver can cause many parents to panic. But Vermani sees it as an opportunity to reidentify who you are and make the most of that newfound time. It could involve traveling, volunteering, changing careers or pursuing a passion that has been on the backburner as raising kids took precedent. For DeLeeuw, having the time to reconnect with her husband was "freeing," and she's now able to accompany him on the business trips she spent years missing out on because of her responsibilities at home.

While Rabeya is single, she's found a new friendship ahead of her son's move to school: her first-ever roommate who is not a family member. "We have girl time on the couch — I've never experienced that in my life," she marvels of renting out a room to a flight attendant in her New York City home. Along with new company, she's got a new business venture, too. Rabeya recently opened the Hybrid Vintage consignment store in Brooklyn, a labor of love she sees as an exciting use of her energy and time as an empty nester.

"I've birthed what I feel like is a brand-new baby," she says.

Finding support

Empty nester life can be thrilling — but as with any change, it's daunting, too. Vermani says it's important for parents to give themselves grace if they are struggling during this time.

"Be kind to yourself," she says. "What you are feeling is very common and you shouldn't feel guilty, embarrassed or weak for feeling that way. Feelings of sadness and anxiety during this transitional phase of life are completely normal."

Support groups for empty nesters may help, but parents who are feeling overwhelmed by their sad or anxious feelings should consider seeking out a mental health professional, she advises.

Staying connected from afar

Planning family outings or one-on-one hangouts ahead of a child leaving home is a good way to squeeze in some bonding and make the most of the time that's left, though parents should bear in mind that their children may also have social obligations with friends they want to attend to.

Once school has started, Vermani advises finding a way to keep in touch without being overbearing. A weekly check-in gives parents something to look forward to and will hopefully quell the urge to call constantly. She also recommends that parents avoid fixating on their children's social media feeds. Parents should make it clear that they are available for support as their young adults embark on this new chapter, while also honoring their independence and self-reliance.

"Allow them to establish their new phase of their life on their terms," Vermani says. "Take their lead. Let them show you how much or how little support they require.

"Enjoy and take pride in watching your child move forward in life," she adds. "Remember how important this changing phase of life was for you, and show your child that you have faith in their abilities — enough faith to allow them their autonomy and freedom to grow and thrive in their new roles and routines."

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