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Categories > Aging Well > Life transitions

Staying happy when kids fly the coop
A changing scene
Common reactions
Planning ahead

When to seek help
When to seek help

Empty-nest syndrome should ease within two months. If these symptoms persist, seek help (feel free to ask us for a referral).

  • a lasting feeling of sadness, hopelessness or anxiety
  • decreased interest in—and decreased ability to enjoy—activities, people and things
  • difficulty concentrating; slow thinking or indecisiveness
  • change in appetite or sleep habits
  • feelings of worthlessness
  • loss of energy and motivation
  • thoughts of death and suicide

How do mothers describe the feeling they have when their children leave home? Often with words like “stabbing pain” and “total emptiness.” Adding to the emotional turmoil is the fact that the “empty nest” often coincides with other significant life events—menopause, the illness or passing of a parent or a career change.

A changing scene

It’s normal for a household to switch gears after the kids are gone. Suddenly, you’re no longer preoccupied with homework assignments, band practice and how your teen is spending Saturday night. The phone may not ring as much, and your grocery list dwindles.

Practically speaking, seeing your children leave home ought to be a relief … so why isn’t it? For many women, the realization that their “babies” are now adults reminds them of their own mortality. And the spousal relationship may add to the strain when, after years of focusing on child rearing, a husband seems more like a stranger than a romantic partner.

Common reactions

How will you know if you’re experiencing empty-nest syndrome? You may feel apathy and a loss of vitality. Activities that once gave you pleasure may suddenly leave you cold. Marital instability and feelings of impending death may also overwhelm you. While the symptoms are severe, they typically ease after six weeks. If you’re still feeling low after two months, seek professional help (see box).

Planning ahead

Empty nest syndrome is not inevitable. By preparing for a child’s departure when he or she is 14, 15 or 16, you can minimize or avoid the syndrome altogether.

As your children move into their middle teens, they’ll want to do fewer activities with you and more on their own and with their peers. That’s your cue to start daydreaming about what life will be like once the children are gone.

Think about some hobbies you’d like to pursue. Maybe solitude is just what you need to pursue an interest in creative writing. Or perhaps you’d always wanted to host a book club at your home but feared the kids would get in the way.

If you’re married, reignite the spark in your relationship before the kids are gone. Arrange special evenings with your spouse—a night at the theater or dancing. Take short trips—even if it’s just for the day—as a couple. Now is also the time to strengthen your social network, so plan more adults-only activities.

Taking these steps may ease the pain of those first few kidless weeks and help you enjoy your newfound liberty. Remember, you’ve reached an important goal—seeing your child to maturity and independence.