What is Empty Nest Syndrome? A Useful Guide to this Evolving Phenomenon
As summer slowly comes to an end, college students are transitioning back to their academic year with many moving into their dormitories. While college students are expected to adjust to their acquired lifestyle, they are not the only ones who will be expected to adjust. Some parents may experience empty nest syndrome
What is empty nest syndrome? What is its impact? Who is most affected? How can you prepare for it? As later research points to the benefits of parents and caregivers experiencing an empty nest, one may question, is it as bad as it seems? More importantly, is this psychological phenomenon evolving based on the changes in family dynamics? These questions have been raised amongst psychologists and experts in family studies. All of these questions are addressed in this useful guide.
What is Empty Nest Syndrome?
Empty nest syndrome (ENS) refers to the psychological phenomenon that parents or guardians experience when their youngest child leaves the home. Contrary to its earlier belief, empty nest syndrome is no longer considered an actual medical diagnosis or psychiatric condition and does not appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM. The term “Empty Nest Syndrome” was actually popularized by sociologists in the 1970s and has become more “conventional wisdom” through television and other media outlets.
“Your child’s life will be filled with fresh experiences. It’s good if yours is as well.” –Dr. Margaret Rutherford
There is a substantial amount of information written about empty nest syndrome, however, empirical evidence remain ambiguous. For example, some empirical evidence suggests that Empty Nest Syndrome affects parents or guardians—especially single mothers—in a negative way. However, other empirical evidence suggests that Empty Nest Syndrome is a healthy and positive transition that parents or guardians experience. This makes sense due to the fact that people experience this stage in the family life cycle differently. Some parents or caregivers associate more negative feelings associated with their child leaving home, while others associate more positive feelings. Since both positive and negative feelings are associated with an empty nest, they will both be discussed in this article.
Negative and Positive Impact of An Empty Nest
The impact of empty nest syndrome falls on two ends of a spectrum. While research from Mayo Clinic emphasizes that empty nest syndrome is not an actual medical condition, it does acknowledge that this transition could have a negative impact for some parents or guardians. In fact, Empty Nest Syndrome can be experienced as profound as the grieving process experienced after losing a loved one. Some self-reported negative symptoms of empty nest syndrome include depression, worry, high-levels of stress, and anxiety over their child’s wellbeing, feelings of rejection or a sudden feeling of loss of purpose. Negative outcomes of Empty Nest Syndrome can include depression, alcoholism, identity crisis and conflicts in marriage.
Recent studies have shown the positive impact of an empty nest. The American Psychological Association suggested an empty nest could promote freedom and improved relationships for parents and caregivers. For example, not having children at home can allow time for parents and caregivers to rekindle interests or pursue goals they may have neglected while raising children. Another positive impact of an empty nest is the ability for spouses to reconnect by spending more quality time together. An unexpected benefit of this empty nest phenomenon is the renewal of ties with other family members or peers. An empty nest might also reduce work conflicts because there is no longer any scheduling conflicts involving children.
Who is Most Affected by Empty Nest Syndrome?
Past research suggested that the empty nest was most detrimental for women, especially stay-at-home or single mothers. Traditional gender roles gave the presumption that mothers, as opposed to fathers, would experience a greater distress when children leave home because of the amount of time they spent caring for the children at home. In fact, this presumption encouraged medical journals to once label empty nest syndrome as a psychiatric disorder and post advertisements for treatment methods such as antidepressants. However, recent research has worked to remove Empty Nest Syndrome from the list of psychiatric disorders and to also refute many of these beliefs.
Recent research has shown more mothers feeling significantly closer to their children after they have left home. This could be due to the fact that mothers no longer have to handle daily-living tasks that involve children. Other mothers report looking forward to starting the next stage of their lives, whether it is going back to school, or work, or simply trying new experiences. The results of a study done by Wheaton College professor, Helen DeVries, showed that fathers were more likely to have a hard time adjusting to their children leaving. One explanation could be that mothers had more time to prepare for their children’s departure, while fathers did not. Consequently, fathers spend more time regretting missed opportunities to share experiences with their children before they left home.
DeVries’ study further suggests that the success of parents or guardians’ transition from a filled nest to an empty nest is dependent on the success of their child’s transition. If a child is not successfully transitioning from leaving their familial home, parents or guardians may have to forfeit their own goals or may question the performance of their child rearing.
The Decline of Empty Nest Syndrome
Not every parent will experience empty-nest syndrome for many reasons. According to the 2015 U.S. census, roughly 24 million Americans aged 18 to 34-years-old still lived at home. Additionally, the 2015 U.S. census showed that the number of states where the majority of young adults living independently was six; a decade earlier, that number was thirty-five. More children are returning home after college or post-college jobs due to factors like the tough job market, high costs of housing and delayed marriage.
More research has also been focusing on the influence culture has on an empty nest. Specifically, exploring the role culture plays when it strong familial units are embedded in its history. Research suggests that children whose parents were foreign or grew up in more religious households are more likely to leave the nest at a later age when compared to their counterparts who do not have foreign parents or grew up in less religious households.
Additionally, the rise of multigenerational homes over the last few decades has caused a decline in children permanently leaving the house. Influences from Asian and Hispanic families encompass children, young adults, parents and grandparents (or grandchildren and grandparents) living in one home. One of the biggest explanations for this is the cost of housing. Another reason for the prevalence of multigenerational homes is the rise of racial and ethnic diversity in the United States. According to the Pew Research Center, a record 60.6 million (or 19% of the U.S. population) lived in multigenerational homes in 2014.
Ways to Cope with Empty Nest Syndrome
For those that do experience empty nest syndrome, there are ways to cope. If parents or guardians’ are experiencing feelings of loss due to empty nest syndrome, here are a few suggestions.
- Accept the timing. It is difficult for parents and guardians not to compare their personal experiences and expectations with the amount of time it is taking their children to reach certain milestones after leaving home. However, if parents or guardians focus on what to do to help their children succeed, it can be less stressful for all parties involved.
- Keep in touch with your children. According to the research, parents or guardians who experience the most successful transition were the ones who maintained regular contact with their children, who had also successfully transitioned from leaving home. Regular visits, phone calls and video chats, text messages and emails are encouraged.
- Seek support. Often seen in positive experiences of experiencing an empty nest, reconnecting and leaning on loved ones can help alleviate the stress of some of the challenges associated with children leaving home. Mayo Clinic also suggests consulting with a doctor or mental health provider if feelings of depression start to occur.
- Stay positive during this transition. Focusing on the positives of children leaving the nest, such as more free-time, exploring new hobbies or experiences and reconnecting with spouses, peers and loved ones can help uplift moods. Being positive and looking ahead may also help prevent empty nest syndrome. Focusing on new opportunities in both a personal and professional life allows parents and guardians to keep busy, which can subsequently help ease the sense of loss a child leaving home might cause.
Further Tips and Conclusions on Empty Nest Syndrome
Although empty nest syndrome is not a medical diagnosis, it is still a valid response to a transition in the family-life cycle. What is interesting about empty nest syndrome is how this phenomenon is not experienced the same way amongst parents and guardians, with some never experiencing it at all. However, if you or someone you know is having a difficult time transitioning from a full nest to an empty one, specifically experiencing feelings of loss or hopelessness, it is strongly encouraged to consult a medical doctor or a health care professional. The empty nest experience is suggested to be a healthy and natural experience, and therefore, it should be experienced in the most beneficial way possible.
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Clay, R. A. An empty nest can promote freedom, improved relationships. American Psychological Association. Posted April 2003.
Cohn, D., and Passel, J.S. A record 60.6 million Americans live in multigenerational households. Pew Research. Posted August 11, 2016.
Mayo Clinic Staff. Empty Nest Syndrome: Tips for Coping. Mayo Clinic. Posted March 17, 2015.
Mitchell, B.A., and Lovegreen, L.D. (2009). The empty nest syndrome in midlife families. Journal of Family Issues, 30(12), 1651-1670. doi:10.1177/0192513×099339020
Newman, S. Empty Nest: Who is needier, parent or child? Psychology Today. Posted September 6, 2008.
Vespa, J. The Changing Economics and Demographics of Young Adulthood: 1975-2016. U.S. Census Bureau. Posted April 2017.