Till now, as a mother, I was the most important person in my son’s life. But now that he’s a teenager, he only comes to me when he needs something. While I understand his need to be independent, I have begun to feel the twinges of grief… When it gets to a point where he leaves home for good, I don’t know what I would do then!”

That’s my client’s story but it could be yours, too.

I have dealt with ‘Empty Nest Syndrome’ [ENS], as it is referred to by most clinicians, with a lot of my clients. ENS is characterised by feelings of grief and loneliness that parents or guardians feel when their children leave home for the first time to attend college, a job in another city or just to move to their marital home after they get married. While mothers seem to be affected the most, by no means are fathers spared. While ENS is not a psychiatric disorder, it often needs therapy and support just like any other ailment.

Getting through the grief

It seems almost inevitable that parents would go through some feelings of desolation as their last child leaves home. While most parents understand and accept the need of their child to move out for work, education, marriage or to live independently, the emotions evoked by this event are hard to control and manage. The sadness at seeing their child go away, being powerless to have a say in most aspects of their lives, worrying about their safety, being concerned about their ability to manage without parental guidance, and the sudden emptiness in their lives and homes, can be very hard on parents.

Stay-at-home parents, women experiencing menopausal symptoms, parents who have recently retired and single or separated parents may feel the loss much more than others.

Preparation is everything

You can’t prepare for it just a few months before your children are ready to go out in the world. Preparation starts much earlier… in fact, from the time your children are young kids.

  • Raise independent and self-assured children: It is important to integrate certain practices in your everyday interactions with your kids. Provide them with acceptable choices, allow them to make decisions on their own, respect their selection, provide support for any [potential] negative fallout. Show your children that you are with them and their preferences. The warmth that you create by doing this stays with them throughout their lives and they will continue to be in touch with you.
  • Encourage independent thinking: Listening to your children’s ideas and allowing them to interpret their environment as they see fit can do wonders for their thought process. Follow some rituals that engage your children at the family level. For instance, watching a movie together, sitting down for meals with each other, and having a brief chat before bedtime can a long way in creating strong attachments between you and your child. The combination of independent thought and family rituals will ensure that your child will be able to live independently and but will still reach out to you for guidance and love.
  • Keep the channels of communication open: Regular, non-intrusive conversations about their state of mind and their feelings help promote a continuous dialogue between you and your children, even after they have moved out. By doing this, you ensure that your child will keep in touch with you and keep you in the loop about any concerns in his life. This knowledge can help in cutting down your anxiety.
  • Accept the facts: Accepting that your children’s need to live their life cannot be based on your personal experiences may sound scary but is actually a freeing experience. Once you are able to accept and trust your children, you can help, support and encourage their endeavours. In this way, they will still need you but in a different way than before.
  • Live your life: I cannot stress enough the importance of living your own life. Cultivating a hobby and involving yourself in meaningful work can be a life saver when your child’s departure leaves behind a sense of emptiness. Involve yourself in a home or work project or sign up as a volunteer at the local school or charity. A fellow counsellor, whose kids have left for another country, has learnt to sidestep her anxiety by devoting many hours teaching English at a girl’s orphanage. She says it makes her feel wanted and it keeps her too busy to feel lonely.
  • Focus on your partner: Children moving out is also a wonderful opportunity to reach out to your spouse. There was probably no time to devote to each other when both of you were busy bringing up the kids and working towards their future. Plan some activities with each other, go for walks, and watch that movie you never found time for or read together daily. Going on a holiday together will also help you deal with the feelings of loss.
  • Change your point of view: Look at the children’s departure from a different perspective. It’s time you patted yourself on the back for all your efforts through the years. Relax, sit back and enjoy the results of your labour. A lot less housework, more time for your hobbies and significantly reduced financial burden can be very liberating.

ENS and the single parent

its-a-new-beginnging-2-320x214A single parent can get badly bruised by the empty nest syndrome. In most cases, a single parent has worked overtime to raise his/her children. Working a full time job to meet the financial demands of the family and often doubling up as the cook, housekeeper, tutor and nanny to the children can be physically and mentally demanding. But you are also rewarded by the child’s undivided love and loyalty. Due to the lack of a partner, this relationship often takes the form of a friendship and can be extremely rewarding for both the child and the parent.

To find yourself suddenly alone after the kids have flown the nest can bring on feelings of isolation, exclusion, melancholy and agonising concern for the children. These are some of the things single parents can do:

Reach out to friends: Especially other single parents, irrespective of the stage of life they are in. They can empathise far better with your state than others.

Become part of a support group: Ask a therapist to guide you to one. Online communities can also be an effective support structure. This will tell you that you are not alone and provide you with someone to talk to when you are going through a tough time.

Rediscover your hobbies: Pursue them diligently. You now have the time to focus on yourself. Take advantage of it.

Volunteer your skills at an orphanage, old age home, centre for the blind or at a school: This gives a symbiotic opportunity to someone in need and provides you with a feeling of being needed.

Start an exercise programme: The endorphins released during a workout help in keeping negativity at bay. There is also the added advantage of keeping yourself healthy and in good shape

Watch for signs of depression

Allow yourself to mourn the loss of the relationship you enjoyed with your child. But if you find yourself indulging too much in nostalgic rumination and weeping about it for more than a couple of weeks, a visit to a therapist might be a good idea. Depending on the severity of your condition, your therapist may put you on medications ranging from the innocent Bachflower remedies to stronger anti-depressants.

Not all’s doom and gloom

Empty nest syndrome is definitely difficult to cope with, though some studies have shown that parents whose children leave home do not necessarily experience the level of grief normally associated with this syndrome. A study done on British, Chinese, Southern European, and East Indian families living in Vancouver found that although parents felt some sadness at their children moving out, a majority experienced increased marital happiness and joy from extra leisure time. The study found that the anticipation of children leaving home was more frightening than the actual departure.

And, just to put things in perspective—empty nest syndrome means that your children are independent and capable of taking care of themselves without your daily support. It means you have done a great job of raising them. Rather an Empty Nest Syndrome than “Boomerang Kids” who come back to live with you!

This was first published in the August 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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