What are the stages of empty nest syndrome?

While you may be excited that your last child is moving off to college or her first adult home, getting comfortable in an empty nest takes some time.
While you may be excited that your last child is moving off to college or her first adult home, getting comfortable in an empty nest takes some time.
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Your first kiss. Your first love. Your first child. Your first … adult child moves out?

According to CIGNA HealthCare, family life cycles have five stages:

  1. Independence from your parents
  2. Settling down with a partner
  3. Becoming a parent to your own children
  4. Launching your adult children into their own independence stage
  5. Your retirement years

Here, we're going to dive into one particular life cycle phase, launching adult children into the world. When children-turned-young-adults begin to move out of the family home, parents may find themselves deciding not only what to do with the spare bedroom, but also what to do with themselves.

Empty nest syndrome, sometimes known as the post-parental period, isn't a medical condition. It can be a combination of separation anxiety, sadness, satisfaction and possibility -- maybe with a dash of adventure thrown into the mix. And just like the family life cycle, it too has stages, although they're less defined.

Life can be full of unexpected changes, but transitioning from full house to empty nest is one that all parents know will eventually come. Learning how to embrace your newly empty nest is just one part of the journey of parenthood. Children leaving home can change you just as bringing home your first child once did.

Often, though, it's the anticipation of children leaving home that's worse than the reality of the empty nest.

Children leaving the nest is hardly the end -- it's not the end of being a parent or the end of your relationship with your kids. Let's look at the numbers: Life expectancy for Americans is about 78 years, on average, and the average age a woman has her first child is roughly age 25 [sources: Stein; Wilson]. If you do the math, a firstborn child could be about 50 at the time of a parent's death. That's not to be grim, but rather to point out that today the odds are in your favor that you'll not only be alive and well to see your children enter adulthood, but that you'll also live to see them succeed and become parents (or even grandparents) along the way.

Next, let's look at some of the mixed emotions an empty nest can stir up, as well as ways parents can cope with the transition.

Inside the Empty Nest

It's healthy to miss your children after they move away from home -- after all, you were probably accustomed to spending time with them almost every day for the last 18 years or so. Launching a child into the world -- whether it's your firstborn or youngest -- can stir up feelings of loss and emptiness, depression and anxiety. These are all normal feelings during a time of transition, and concerning empty nests, the feelings of loss often begin when the first child leaves home.

But if those feelings linger beyond the first few weeks or months after a child moves away, it's important to seek the help of your partner, close friends and family. You could even consider finding a support group of other empty nesters. Those who have trouble overcoming their feelings of loss or who find themselves sinking into depression should consider seeking the counsel of a therapist or other health professional.

It's also healthy to use the empty-nest transition period as a time to reconnect with your partner and to develop a peer relationship with your adult children. Some empty nesters find that once they become accustomed to their new routine -- one without soccer practice, lessons and school events -- they have more time and energy for themselves. This is the stage of exploration, a time to rediscover your interests, your friendships and the world around you.

This can also be a rejuvenating time for relationships. Results of a study published in the journal "Psychological Science" found that during the empty nest transitional period, married women were more satisfied -- and found more enjoyment in the time they spent -- with their partners (that's quality, not quantity; the amount of time spent together didn't necessarily increase) [source: Gorchoff et al].

And just when you think empty nest syndrome is coming to a close -- maybe you've set up regular phone calls, or use Facebook, Skype or online photo-sharing sites to help stay updated on your kids' experiences -- brace yourself. About 13 percent of parents of adult children report that at least one of their kids moved back into the nest in the last year [source: Wang and Morin].

Keep reading for lots more information about empty nest syndrome.

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Sources

  • CIGNA. "Family Life Cycle." Feb. 12, 2009. (May 9, 2011)http://www.cigna.com/healthinfo/ty6171.html
  • Clay, Rebecca A. "An empty nest can promote freedom, improved relationships." American Psychological Association. Monitor on Psychology. April 2003. (May 9, 2011)http://www.apa.org/monitor/apr03/pluses.aspx
  • Gorchoff, Sara M. et al. "Contextualizing Change in Marital Satisfaction During Middle Age: An 18-Year Longitudinal Study." Psychological Science. Nov. 1, 2008. (May 9, 2011)http://pss.sagepub.com/content/19/11/1194.short
  • Grange, Helen. "How to cope when your kids leave home." Independent Online. April 28, 2011. (May 9, 2011)http://www.iol.co.za/lifestyle/family/how-to-cope-when-your-kids-leave-home-1.1061877
  • Stein, Rob. "Death rate down, life expectancy up in U.S." The Washington Post. March 16, 2011. (May 9, 2011)http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-checkup/post/death-rate-down-life-expectancy-up-in-us/2011/03/15/AB4UYlY_blog.html
  • Vann, Madeline. "An Empty Nest Opens New Doors." Everyday Health. April 30, 2009. (May 9, 2011)http://www.everydayhealth.com/womens-health/empty-nest-opens-new-doors.aspx
  • Wang, Wendy and Rich Morin. "Recession Brings Many Young People Back to the Nest: Home for the Holidays … and Every Other Day." Pew Research Center. Nov. 24, 2009. (May 9, 2011)http://pewsocialtrends.org/files/2010/10/home-for-the-holidays.pdf
  • Wilson, Brenda. "For Prospective Moms, Biology and Culture Clash." NPR. May 8, 2008. (May 9, 2011)http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=90227229
  • Yara, Susan. "Father's Empty Nest." Forbes. Aug. 23, 2006. (May 9, 2011)http://www.forbes.com/2006/08/22/empty-nest-men_cx_sy_0823dads.html