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Surviving the Empty Nest—Advice for Struggling Parents

Jane wipes away tears as she slides into the therapy chair in my office. “My son Dylan asked me to help him clean out his room so he could pack for college. We were making piles and sorting, smack in the middle of a huge purge, when he handed me a tattered board book.” 

She chokes back a sob and I feel my heart clench.  

“It was about a young bear who sits on his mother’s lap every night while they read. Dylan asked if I wanted to save it—his way of letting me know he was ready to leave home, he wasn’t a boy anymore.”  She begins to sob. “My teenagers are no longer part of my daily life.”

I hear this story a lot. Despite having a job she enjoys and partner she loves,  a community of friends and variety of hobbies, Jane’s role in the family—caregiver, mother—her overall identity, is in now flux. 

It isn’t just mothers who struggle when kids leave for college. Bob, a successful professional and competitive runner, is also reeling. His twins are newly enrolled at a university several states away. Each day brings feelings of sadness, and reminders of loss. Bob wakes up in the middle of the night, wondering, “What are the kids doing, are they okay?” 

With empty rooms come fears. “This phase is the first time I see a distinct past, present, and future,” he says. “The best is behind me. The present is less fun, and the future promises to bring even less joy.” 

As I listen to Jane and Bob, I’m aware that I’m also grieving my absent teenagers. My house is silent and empty, devoid of clutter, laughter, and chatter. There are positives: no struggles for autonomy, no tension in the air. The loss of contact is not necessarily permanent. I remind myself disappointment is inevitable, setbacks occur. It’s what we do with it that matters.

For Jane and Bob I recommend talk therapy to help understand their reactions to loss. We’ll incorporate acceptance strategies too, borrowing from the wellness practice of mindfulness. 

I ask Dr. Valerie Golden, a Minneapolis psychologist and psychoanalyst who works with parents and adolescents, to weigh in. She suggests making use of the freedom that comes when kids leave the nest, advising clients to rediscover connections to partners and friends, spend time on pursuits like travel, sports, and hobbies, or complete home improvement projects that might have been put on hold for years. 

“Treatment is a must,” says Golden. “Therapy helps with difficult transitions and allows people to address the grief that comes from seeing their children grow up and the anxiety that arises in response to aging.”

Just as psychotherapy provides an effective support for parents struggling to launch older teens, developing acceptance helps parents learn to embrace what they cannot change. 

Mark Gerow, a wellness coach and yoga instructor, breaks it down this way: “Through meditation and relaxation, the nervous system becomes regulated, as cortisol levels (chemicals associated with stress) drop.”  

And that’s where mindfulness comes in. By learning to observe one’s thoughts, being rooted in place and time, and leaning in to embrace difficult feelings and experiences, we ultimately come to terms with the very things that are most distressing. 

I asked Gerow what acceptance would look like for parents confronting feelings of loneliness, fears of aging, and anxiety about a lack of control. “The sadness and fear brings a natural and inevitable shift. Doing things differently, say, practicing self-care, or doting on a partner or spouse, and then developing connections with something bigger—the community, others, or with the planet—is reparative,” he says. “It is through connection with something larger that parents will begin to fill the void—and find acceptance.” 

Finding ways to embrace fears and lean into sadness can be a difficult process, even for devotees of mindfulness or seasoned practitioners of psychotherapy. Wrapping your mind around your worst-case scenarios, your greatest anxieties, leaning in and turning towards difficult feelings, takes time and effort.

So where does that leave Jane and Bob? They’re working on it. 

And me? With kids away at school, our house isn’t the same. I am leaning into the loss and understanding how it makes me feel. For now, I’m crossing my fingers the kids and I will navigate our transition to the next phase—whatever that may be.

Tips for Developing Acceptance and Coping with an Empty Nest

1. Reset After our Kids Leave Home

It’s all how we view a situation. We don’t stop being parents just because we no longer share the same roof as our kids. Older teens and young adults need to be guided, loved, and parented. Empty nesters frequently express surprise at their continued involvement in helping, advising, and parenting, all from afar.  

The demands of parenting change. But it isn’t just how you see the situation that matters, it’s also how you see yourself, and perceive your identity. Flexibility is important.

2. Broaden your identity beyond parent

Bolstering new and different aspects of the self creates opportunities for personal growth during the early parenting years, but also after the kids have left for college. 

Bottom line: it’s important to branch out. Learn new skills by studying a foreign language or taking up a sport. Spend time with people who share your interests. Volunteer. You are now free to pick and choose, no need to socialize with other parents. It’s okay to acknowledge what you’ve lost, but it’s important to find new outlets.

3. Reframe your loss as their opportunity

Another way to move forward after the loss of the full house: reframe the experience. Instead of, “I miss my daughter and wish she wasn’t so far away,” think: “She is at her school and thriving. She runs a club, gets excellent grades, goes out with friends, and she’s happy with her life.” 

Taking pleasure in your children’s success and competence can serve as a soothing balm for the pain of loss.

4. Focus on the positives 

Turning the negative around is another technique for dealing with an empty nest. When lonely feelings arise, remember it’s easier to cook for two than for three or four. Consider the benefits of solitude. Quiet can be restorative and calming. Fewer people means less competition and less arguing. You don’t have to share the brownies! 

Turning thoughts around allows us to enjoy the small moments and little pleasures in each day. Though there may be less family time, take comfort in knowing the children are following the natural course of things. It’s what’s meant to be.

5. Use guided imagery 

One final way to combat the loneliness is to picture something happy. Instead of dwelling on the quiet—how rooms used to be filled with voices and laughter—search your brain’s hard drive. I like to call to mind the image of my son, walking down a leafy path, chatting with friends, waving hello and smiling from ear to ear. 

I also create a visual of my daughter, relaxed and happy, giggling with her friends, and imagine her typing furiously on her laptop, furrowing her brow in concentration as she creates beautiful prose and writes persuasive essays. After picturing them enjoying life, laughing and engaged, my mood inevitably shifts, and my face splits into a wide grin. 

We are still parents, even at a distance and even once our children have built their own lives separate from the one they shared with us. While the day to day of our lives may look different, parenting is a lifelong experience and the empty nest is just another challenge we must embrace.

Stephanie Newman Ph.D.

Dr. Stephanie Newman is a clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst, author, and adjunct faculty member at Columbia University who works with parents in private practice and often fields questions about adolescent struggles for autonomy. (Find her at https://psychotherapistnextdoor.com)

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