10 Tips To Minimize The Suffering Of The Empty Nest When Your Kids Fly The Coop

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“Empty nest syndrome” refers to the feelings of loss and grief that parents experience when their children leave home.

It’s a time of intense emotional difficulty and upheaval, particularly for single parents or those who dedicated decades to child-rearing.

If you’re going through this right now, you aren’t alone, and there are ways to ease your suffering.

With the 10 tips in this article, you’ll be better equipped to survive the empty nest you find yourself in with when your kids fly the coop.

Why is having an empty nest so heartbreaking?

Raising children isn’t just something lovely that people do to create a family—it also provides an immense sense of purpose.

We spend at least 18 years devoting ourselves to another’s well-being until they’re old enough to take care of themselves.

And if you have several children, that 18-year span can last a decade longer, at least! If you started having kids in your early 20s and had your last in your mid-30s, by the time you reach 55 you’ll have spent over half your life taking care of kids.

So when they “fly the coop” and leave the parental nest, there’s suddenly a huge absence in your life.

Gone are the daily routines, as well as the familiar sounds, sights, and scents of the not-so-little ones you’ve been tending for decades.

Instead of music, bustle, and shouts of “MOM!” or “DAD!” from various parts of the house, there’s a deafening silence that magnifies the hole that your children’s absence has left.

Many people dealing with empty nest syndrome feel they no longer have a sense of purpose. They’ve been parents for so long that they don’t know who they are outside of that role.

The daily routines and habits they had grown accustomed to are no longer relevant. They’re no longer “needed”—not unless they have a partner or parent who requires their care.

This loss of purpose can be devastating and often triggers depression and anxiety in empty nesters. You might feel like you’re old and useless and have nothing left to offer the world, while simultaneously feeling lost and abandoned.

Single parents, in particular, may fixate on a fear of dying, or experience anger at feeling “abandoned” after putting so much time and effort into taking care of their kids.

This is one of the reasons parents often pressure their adult children about having grandchildren: their loss of personal purpose makes them yearn to be needed caregivers again.

But this pressure can place a huge strain on parent-child relationships, especially if the adult children have decided not to have kids of their own. This strain only exacerbates the feelings of suffering experienced by the empty nester.

10 tips to feel better about the reality of your empty nest:

Having an “empty nest” doesn’t have to be a cause for dismay.

It can offer a great opportunity to put energy towards your own life instead of wearing yourself ragged as a full-time parent.

Consider trying the following tips to help survive the heartache you’re contending with. Determine which approaches may work for you, and ease into them when you’re ready!

1. Spend time with friends (and make new ones!)

Parents get used to daily, repeated interactions with their kids.

You chat with them at breakfast or after school, discuss interesting things over meals, and watch TV or films together in the evenings and at weekends.

If you have a particularly close relationship, you may also go shopping together, or attend events like sports games or shows as a family.

As a result, you may feel lonely and isolated once the kids leave the nest.

Suddenly you’re only cooking for yourself, especially if you’re a single parent. Your only interaction with other people may be occasional phone calls or brief chats with the checkout person at the grocery store.

Even married couples may not talk much because they don’t know what to say now the kids aren’t there to discuss.

The way to get past this is to cultivate a healthy social life.

If you haven’t seen old friends for a while, make plans to get together regularly. Take a class together or make it a ritual to get together for lunch on Saturdays, etc.

Alternatively, if your social life isn’t active, see this as an opportunity to make some new friends. There are many meetup groups you can take part in, as well as social events hosted by community centers and places of worship, etc.

2. Get to know yourself outside of your parental role.

If you haven’t had much of an identity beyond “mom” or “dad” for the past 20-odd years, then it’s likely you’ve lost sight of certain aspects of yourself.

Whereas before your main priority was your child, with your own unique personality as a side thought, those priorities have now switched.

Take this as an opportunity to get back in touch with who you were before you had children. Determine whether there are aspects of that person that want to rise back to the surface, or if that person has changed into someone completely different.

In the film The Namesake, the matriarch (Ashima) was an up-and-coming singer in Calcutta before her parents arranged her marriage. After raising two children in America, she found herself widowed and needed to figure out what to do with the rest of her life. She created a balance, spending part of each year back in India, singing and recording music, and the rest of her time with her family (including grandchildren).

Re-connect with who you used to be and see if any of the values and traits you previously embodied still hold true. You now have the chance to either breathe new life back into coals that have been smoldering softly for years or kindle a new fire from scratch.

Who do you want to be? What do you want the rest of your life to look like?

3. Work with a therapist or life coach.

Many people feel absolutely lost when their kids leave the nest. Some get anxiety attacks because they worry about the things that could happen to their grown kids away from home, while others feel depressed and devoid of purpose.

If you’re struggling with mental and emotional upheaval, or if you’re at a loss about what to do with the next chapter of your life, don’t hesitate to reach out for help.

Some therapists and coaches specialize in these life transitions and can help guide you through them with useful suggestions and coping strategies.

For instance, a therapist may recommend cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or solution-focused therapy to help you overcome anxieties and frustrations related to the unfamiliar territory you’re now traversing.

Similarly, a coach can help to get you out of your funk by encouraging you to make other aspects of your life a priority.

You’re a many-faceted being who can now explore all your other dreams and plans that haven’t received enough attention over the years.

You may have felt immensely fulfilled as a parent, but that role is no longer your primary function (at least not in the daily, hands-on sense). You’re rolling over to a new life path, and as scary as that may be, it’s also a wonderful adventure to embark upon!

4. Pick up pursuits or pastimes you’ve always wanted to do.

When you think back to the years you spent with your child (or children), how often did you get frustrated by their constant needs and interruptions when you were trying to do your own thing?

Parents often get so blown off course by the unrelenting demands on their time that they stop pursuing the interests they once loved.

Quite simply, they can’t be bothered even trying to immerse themselves in their hobbies because their concentration will be blown away in minutes.

Often the only time they have to themselves is late at night when the kids are asleep, at which point they’re too exhausted to do anything other than slump in front of the TV and drool themselves to sleep.

Now that you don’t have offspring constantly calling your name or requiring your chauffeur services daily, you have plenty of time to devote to your own interests.

So what would you like to do? Catch up on a couple of decades’ worth of reading? Go back to school to earn a degree? Take up salsa dancing or baking? Or maybe just relax in the bath for an hour without fear of interruption!

Make a point of spending time doing whatever you’ve always wanted to do but never had the chance to…until now.

It’s important to note that some empty nesters procrastinate when it comes to hobbies and such because they’re afraid they’ll fail at them if and when they try.

For instance, someone who’s always dreamed about becoming a master baker but felt their kids held them back from that dream may not pursue it when the kids are gone, solely because of how fiercely that dream kept them going. If they pursue it now and do badly, that magical dream bubble gets shattered.

Some empty nesters may not know what they want to do and would prefer to fall back into familiar territory. Since that isn’t an option, they get depressed and may turn to drinking or self-isolation.

So be brave, dear heart, and take a risk in doing something you love. You’ll undoubtedly have a lot more fun than you realize.

5. Get involved with the community.

If you’re having difficulty trying to figure out what to do, and you feel you’re lacking a sense of purpose, there are few pursuits more rewarding than getting involved in community work.

There are volunteer opportunities in pretty much every community on the planet, so you’re certain to find some that resonate with you.

For example, if you like to socialize but also enjoy peace and quiet, you can volunteer to scan printed materials into e-books at your local library.

Alternatively, if you miss the energy and bustle of a large group of kids, you can volunteer as a nursery school assistant or after-school coordinator.

And just because your kids aren’t in the house anymore doesn’t mean you can’t still work with young people!

You undoubtedly have a wealth of experience under your belt, which you can use to help young people while enjoying their company in turn. Check out intergenerational mentorship programs and teaching opportunities in your area for ideas on how you can get involved.

6. Surround yourself with joy.

This one may seem frivolous, but it’s vitally important to surround yourself with sensory stimulation that makes you happy.

In the simplest terms, brighten up your immediate surroundings with happy sounds, beautiful hues, plants that require your loving care, etc.

Play music that lifts your spirit, and consider burning incense or candles in scents that make you smile.

If you haven’t changed your home decor in decades, now’s your chance to mix things up. You don’t have to spend a fortune to do this either: a few throw pillows or a new set of curtains can change a room dramatically, especially if you move the furniture around a bit.

Not having kids in the house anymore is also an opportunity to furnish your home with items that you may have hesitated to invest in while they were still living there.

If they were rowdy and might have broken a good flat-screen TV, now’s your chance to install one so you can watch Outlander in HD, splayed across your wall.

Big, gorgeous plants aren’t likely to get knocked over now, and you can use the good china and crystal on a daily basis. Treat yourself!

7. Travel.

One major regret that many people express is that they didn’t get a chance to travel much because their time and money were devoted to taking care of their kids.

Although some people have the means and opportunity to travel with their children, most folks find it far too expensive and stressful to do so. As a result, they only have the chance to pack their bags and fly away once the kids have flown the coop as well.

If you’ve always been interested in traveling but couldn’t because your sprogs took priority, there’s no time like the present to go exploring.

Make a list of all the places you’ve been aching to visit and prioritize which ones you’d like to see the most. Then do your research to find out the best seasons to visit each location, and plan accordingly.

Some places are better (and cheaper) to visit in wintertime, while others have rainy or sweltering seasons that you’d do best to avoid.

Since your kids are no longer eating you out of house and home and requiring you to buy them all manner of The Latest Thing, you can afford to put that extra cash towards visiting the pyramids, snorkeling with stingrays, or watching the Aurora borealis.

8. Downsize.

When your kids were at home, you had much more mess to tidy up, but you also had more hands on deck to help with the cleaning.

Now that they’re out, you may feel overwhelmed by all the empty space that needs to be tended to.

Even if your kids are only home occasionally, you may still keep their rooms intact, which means dusting and vacuuming regularly, while the rest of the house also needs upkeep.

If you have neither the time nor the energy to play maid in an empty, echoing house, consider downsizing to a smaller place. This will be a lot more manageable as far as upkeep goes, thus freeing up your time for your own pursuits.

Your kids can either come and get their stuff or keep it in storage until they have places of their own. Instead of a full bedroom, you can have a pullout couch and a cot in the closet, so they have places to sleep when they come to visit.

Create a living space that you (and your partner/spouse, if you have one) love, decorated in the aesthetics that you like best.

9. Get a pet (or two, or more).

One great antidote to the crippling loneliness you may feel after your kids fly the coop is to get an animal companion or two. They aren’t meant to replace your children, of course, but can provide you with both companionship and raison d’etre.

As we discussed earlier, empty nest syndrome often includes a loss of day-to-day purpose and loneliness that’s exacerbated by soul-crushing silence after years of bustling activity.

If your grown child has recently moved out, you’re likely experiencing much more stillness and silence than you’re accustomed to.

Consider visiting your local animal shelter to see who’s available for adoption, and get at least one animal companion that’s well suited to both your temperament and your living situation.

For example, if you have the space for them to tumble around and the patience for barking and roughhousing, consider adopting a couple of medium- to large-sized dogs. They’ll require your diligent care, including daily walks to get you up and out, and can provide both companionship and security (which is ideal if you live alone).

Alternatively, a couple of cats, rabbits, or parakeets are wonderful companions for smaller homes or apartments.

10. Consider fostering.

This is at the bottom of the list because it may not be an option for many people, and it may be more stressful than helpful.

That said, if you’re suffering badly from empty nest syndrome and you haven’t been able to find fulfillment in any other pursuits, you may wish to consider applying to be a foster parent.

There’s no upper cutoff limit so long as you’re in good health, and have space in your home to do so.

Fostering children can certainly rekindle a sense of purpose and meaning in your life, and older adults are often sought-after foster parents because of their life experience and patience.

Empty nesters can be ideally suited to helping children who have experienced trauma and hardship because they’re seen more like loving grandparents.

If you’ve exhausted the other options on this list and feel you have the energy, strength, and willpower to help little ones (even temporarily) who are going through difficulty, being a foster parent is something to look into.

Although you may only have these kids in your care for a short time, you’ll be able to make a wonderful impact on their lives, and in turn, they’ll remind you that you still have an extraordinary amount of worth and purpose.

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As you can see, having an “empty nest” doesn’t have to be a cause for heartbreak or loneliness.

Granted, you’ll have pangs of sorrow because you miss your children’s constant energy and companionship, but remember, they’re only a phone or video call away.

You’ve invested a ton of time and effort into raising these amazing young people, but now is your chance to turn that energy towards your own pursuits.

Get to know who you are now, and encourage this new version of yourself to take the opportunity to explore the world anew as well.

About The Author

Catherine Winter is an herbalist, INTJ empath, narcissistic abuse survivor, and PTSD warrior currently based in Quebec's Laurentian mountains. In an informal role as confidant and guide, Catherine has helped countless people work through difficult times in their lives and relationships, including divorce, ageing and death journeys, grief, abuse, and trauma recovery, as they navigate their individual paths towards healing and personal peace.