How to Deal with Empty Nest Loneliness
More than just keeping busy, it's about reevaluating your life, experts say
Empty nest syndrome is the grief and loneliness many parents experience when their kids head out into the world, leaving behind a ringing silence.
Some people feel blue for weeks, while others get on with it after a good cry or two. Thus far, I’m the latter, but I have one more child to nudge along, so I can’t appreciate the full silence quite yet.
However, if I’m blue for my kids, I figure I just need to get busier. Most people I know believe the same.
The Empty Nest: A 'Long Letting Go'
But Natalie Caine, an expert in empty nesting and other life transitions, tells me this phase is more complex than simply missing the family dynamic. Like the children who have just exited, we adults are entering a new developmental phase that hits everyone a bit differently, and it’s important to make space for vulnerability. No "shoulds" here.
Caine says when our kids leave, new emotions and thoughts emerge that catch us unaware. The most obvious is the wake-up call that you don’t have forever anymore. While our kids are adjusting to new beginnings, we are at the front end of the long letting go.
Often, it includes thinking you weren’t the parent you wanted to be and missed out — either believing you worked too much and missed too many of your kids’ events. Or you feel you didn’t prepare your children well enough and you’re not a good enough parent.
In addition, memories of a loss you’ve experienced — the death of a parent, sibling, or close friend — may resurface. It’s a little-understood component of empty nesting that no one talks about, Caine says.
People often can’t identify the feelings, but recognize them enough to know they feel off. If you’re experiencing loss more acutely than another empty nester friend, you may have extra life circumstances in the mix, but there’s nothing wrong with you. Empty nesting grief isn’t a clinical diagnosis, says Barbara Greenberg, adolescent clinical psychologist and author of Teenage as a Second Language: A Parent’s Guide to Becoming Bilingual.
“It may feel like a big psychological issue, but you’re just feeling a lot at one time,” Caine explains, “You haven’t had an opportunity in a long time to feel a lot all at once. The key is learning how to sort it out.”
The empty house also forces you to evaluate what you find meaningful (you may not know), as well as the state of your marriage without children as a buffer, says Greenberg. You might notice cracks.
From her work with families, Greenberg believes empty-nesting grief has increased in the last 30 years as a result of child-centered marriages, helicopter parenting and social media that allows families to be in constant contact.
Part of what causes emotional pain is thinking you shouldn’t be feeling these feelings, which can be compounded by upbeat friends who advise you to get busy. But working parents feel the empty nest just as acutely as stay-at-home parents, Greenberg says. Being busy isn’t a cure-all.
Those who weather the transition better tend to have a good friend group, activities outside the home before kids moved away and ways of defining themselves besides “mom” or “dad,” Greenberg says.
What You Can Do
Probably what shocks parents the most as empty nesters is the change in community, with school activities and kids’ sports suddenly ending.
You may feel the urge to get in touch with your child to curb loneliness. But to examine what you really need, Caine counsels checking in with yourself every day and not giving in to the urge to text kids too much. Ask yourself three questions:
- How am I doing?
- What am I thinking about and do I need to keep thinking about that?
- What do I need today?
Soothe yourself, acknowledge you miss your childand evaluate what you need to do for yourself: meet a friend, get outside, pick up a book at the library. In the process of finding a new rhythm, you’ll have some days you feel great and other days you don’t. That’s normal.
To mitigate loneliness, Caine suggests getting to know your creative side — it could be as simple as rearranging the furniture — and getting out into nature without your phone or music. Noticing beauty feeds creativity, and creativity lessens loneliness, she says.
Most well-intentioned people will suggest new hobbies. But empty nesters need time to get to know themselves. Help a friend, explore your city for fun or try an activity from your younger days.
If you get really low — and know this about yourself — Caine recommends getting busy right away (try the above). If you feel blue, but not debilitated, take the opportunity to pause and reflect.
“Your growth is to be in the unknown; get comfortable with it. Enjoy the exploration,” Caine suggests. Take a little road trip for new scenery.
For those who over-do and over-think, she counsels baby steps to doing nothing to allow yourself to open up. Sit on the porch and notice your feelings. Call a relative you never call. Make a little plan, like inviting friends to dinner, but aim for a slower pace.
'Give That Person a Voice'
“Find the individual in yourself and give that person a voice,” Caine says, “but in the beginning, make no big decisions. The key is to enjoy the not knowing of what’s next. Part of what immobilizes people is they think they need to have the answer before they’ve lived it.”
Take a look at how much time you spend on creativity, relationships, personal finances, spirituality, wellness and fun to help you decide how to reprioritize, Caine says. Also, be vulnerable with your partner and really talk with each other.
Above all, remember: You’re not done parenting. Your kids will always need you, no matter their age, and it’s never too late to coach them — just like when they lived at home.