Anxiety and the Empty Nest

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It’s normal to feel nervous when a child moves out of the home for the first time. Most parents feel some sorrow and some anxiety about a child moving out, and home life readjustments need to be made. But those feelings are also combined with feelings of pride, accomplishment, relief, and a new sense of freedom. If the negative feelings persist, however, there might be a problem.

Anxious about the Child

For nearly two decades the parent’s job has been to care for and protect the child, and part of protection is being able to watch them and guide them on a regular basis. When the parent can’t oversee the child, then they feel it is nearly impossible to protect them. However, when the child has been raised well and have been taught how make responsible decisions and hopefully to avoid the major pitfalls of life, then most parents have faith that their child can effectively deal with what life throws at them.

On the other hand, a parent may feel anxiety about a child because they don’t have confidence that they have taught the child sufficiently or that the child is ready to be on his own. A parent may also feel anxiety if their own experience in the world has been particularly rocky. But a parent can continue to be a resource to the adult child, regardless of whether he or she lives at home or not. And if the anxiety stems from the parent's background, some counseling might help sort out real dangers from those inappropriately carried over from the parent’s life.

Anxious about being Alone

Most people feel they never have a moment to themselves when their children are young and active. Furthermore, some parents come to rely on their young adult child's company. When the child moves out, the parent may feel alone and purposeless.

Once a child moves out of the home, parents can suddenly feel as if they have nothing but time to themselves; thus, there is a natural void. Most parents learn to fill that void by spending more time with friends, more time on the house or on projects they wanted to complete but couldn’t during child rearing years, or they take classes or get involved in the community. Few would want to spend the majority of their time alone, so if they are not getting out and making new connections, that might be the first sign of trouble.

Anxious about Being Alone with a Spouse

The introduction of the child profoundly affects that relationship between the two spouses, as a child often becomes the focus of the relationship. When the child leaves, the couple can feel--sometimes temporarily, sometimes fatally--that there is no point to their relationship. Many couples do not survive the empty nest. Others can enter a renewed courtship and honeymoon phase, rediscovering each other and going forward with an enriched relationship.

Once the child is gone, it’s a good idea for the couple to sit down and discuss the accomplishments of the relationship, shared values, and new goals and dreams. Marital counseling or a guided couple’s retreat might help with this process.

Anxiety about Their Identity without Kids

Having a child is often an all-encompassing activity; consideration of the child enters every aspect of the adult’s life. Thus, a major driving force of the parent’s life is the well being of the child. Additionally, many people feel the point of their own life is to raise children. When the child no longer needs daily consideration and guidance, the purpose or identity of the parent may be temporarily lost. Again, this should be a transitional phase in which the parent redefines themselves and refocuses their attention. If the parent feels adrift and anxious many months after the child has left, a few visits with a counselor might help.

Additional Stresses at Launch Time

The time children are leaving the nest often coincides with other significant events in a parent’s life. The grandparents may be getting to an age that the parent feels they went from caring for a child to caring for their own parent with no time to enjoy any freedom. They may feel anxious and resentful. Parents may be entering the change in life. Both women and men can feel anxiety at the changes in their bodies. Women undergo menopause, which can be stressful. Men have their own midlife challenges, when their bodies are losing their virility and they may be getting passed over at work for younger workers. All taken together, these things can cause a crisis if not approached with good mental health, solid understanding, and support from family and friends.

Signs of Maladjustment

Signs that there is maladjustment to being an empty nester are about the same as signs signaling clinical anxiety and/or depression:

  • spending the majority of their time alone when not a loner by nature
  • spending the majority of their time thinking of the child
  • intrusive thoughts of the child being harmed or in danger
  • crying often
  • sleeping too much or not much at all
  • over or undereating
  • increased respiration/heart rate when thinking of the child or thinking of being alone
  • frequent nightmares

If the parent has even one of these signs for more than a week, then the person may have lapsed into a pathological state. Counseling and even medication may be necessary to regain a sense of peace and happiness.

“Empty nest syndrome,” while not officially recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, is still surely is a real phase many parents go through. Keeping open to new possibilities and remembering the child is not out of your life forever, just out of your home, will go a long way to staying healthy and not letting anxiety or depression get in the way of discovering the joys of being an empty nester.

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