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How to Navigate Empty Nest Syndrome

An empty nest in a tree, with a torn photo effect applied.

Independence Blue Cross Vice President of Operations Nicole Gold has done a remarkable job of raising her son, Hayden. He was a valedictorian at his high school graduation and will be a freshman at The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in the fall. She has every reason to be confident that he’ll be fine as he makes the transition to living on his own.

So why does she have feelings of sadness and anxiety?

Empty nest syndrome refers to the distress and other complicated emotions that many parents experience when their children leave home. The feelings can range from loss and sadness to anxiety, grief, and fear.

“When you’re used to seeing your kid every day and checking in on him, you feel like you know what’s going on with him,” Nicole says, noting that she’ll need to learn how to give Hayden his space. The other concern is how she will use the time she spent raising her son now that she has more time on her hands.

“There’s a theory of depression that has to do with the loss of a role,” says clinical psychologist Tamar E. Chansky, PhD. “For those parents who are truly sad and feel depressive symptoms, it’s often because the role they saw themselves in is changing and they don’t yet have a plan for what their new role is going to be. It’s a loss of identity as well.”

Planning a Life Transition

In this circumstance, it can be helpful to frame the empty nest as a life transition. It’s healthy to feel the loss of that chapter of life, but then pivot to making plans for structuring your time and to building something for yourself, Dr. Chansky says.

Nicole says she’s going to take the opportunity to spend time at the gym and focus on her health, and maybe remodel some rooms in the house. While she was always a working mother, the family spent a lot more time together during the pandemic, so Hayden’s absence will be particularly felt.

Of course, not all parents are distressed when the kids fly the coop. At least one study, from the Journal of Developmental Psychology, concludes that empty nest syndrome is overblown and that the middle school years are more stressful for parents than sending the kids off to college or their own place to live.  So, if you feel relieved, or excited by a new sense of freedom and possibilities, that’s okay too.

A Wide Range of Experiences

“Everyone’s experience is valid. Every place on the continuum makes sense,” Dr. Chansky says, so there’s no need to feel guilty if you’re not feeling sad. “I urge gentleness with yourself with whatever you’re feeling,” says Dr. Chansky. “Everyone has a different journey.”  And, if you find that after a while you’re still having trouble making the transition, it’s a good idea to talk to a counselor or a friend.

For parents having trouble letting go, remember that this is the young adult’s time to grow into their new role. If you’re not hearing from them as often as you’d like, it’s probably because they’re doing well.

“Unless there is cause for concern, follow their lead about how often they want to talk,” Dr. Chansky suggests.

For more information about depression, self-care strategies, and where to find help, visit ibx.com/knowyourmind.

IBX Insights Team

About IBX Insights Team

The IBX Insights Team is here to provide tips on using your health insurance and living a healthy life.