An Empty Nest Doesn't Have to Mean an Empty Life

You’ve always known this day would come  the day when all of your children are grown up and out of the house. And let’s be honest: You might even have been looking forward to it. (It’s OK to admit that.)

That’s why it may be surprising to find yourself with a classic case of empty nest syndrome – when mothers and fathers feel a loss of purpose or joy after their last child leaves for college, the military, a job or marriage.

Usually Short-Lived

Fortunately, for most people, the sadness is short-lived and won’t affect their long-term health.

“It’s not a clinical diagnosis, like depression or anemia,” says internal medicine specialist Felix Nwaokafor, MD. “The problem is really the mixed feelings that go with this transition.”

One moment, you may feel pride in your children’s accomplishments and congratulate yourself on guiding them to independence. The next, you may wonder what you’ll do with your time now that you aren’t folding mounds of laundry, rushing to after-school soccer games and quizzing kids on SAT words.

Most parents come to terms with these emotions within a couple of months after their children move out, but some people may be more susceptible than others, Dr. Nwaokafor says. These include:

  • Parents of only children
  • Single parents who don't have a significant other to lean on
  • Parents whose children have joined the military and fear for their safety
  • Mothers, because depression is twice as prevalent in females than in males
  • Unhappily married couples, whose focus shifts from the daily needs of their children to the realities of their relationship

Dr. Nwaokafor offers these tips for coping with these emotions:

  • Accept it as normal
  • Focus on the opportunity to bond with your partner, if you have one
  • Volunteer in the community
  • Embark on a new career, even part-time
  • Enroll in classes
  • Pursue a hobby you've put on hold, or try something that has always intrigued you
  • Use technology, such as texting or Facetime, to stay in touch with your children - but don't overuse them for your own instant gratification
  • Schedule a family reunion once a year, when parents and kids can reconnect and then return to their own pursuits

See It as a Transition

Don’t turn to vices, such as alcohol or gambling, Dr. Nwaokafor says, or allow feelings of despair to fester for too long. The latter can lead to a type of pathological empty nest syndrome.

“If you find yourself months and years after the kids have left home in a depression and refusing to accept the situation, that may lead to a decline in health,” Dr. Nwaokafor says. “If it gets to the point that you’re not putting your life back together because your child has left, it’s time to talk to a medical provider or counselor.”

Above all, keep the situation in perspective, he says.

“Once children leave the house, parenthood does not come to an end,” Dr. Nwaokafor says. “It’s just a transition.”

Felix Nwaokafor, MD is an internal medicine specialist at University Hospitals Parma Medical Associates. You can request an appointment with Dr. Nwaokafor or any other University Hospitals doctor online.

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