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Empty Nest Syndrome: Definition & Explanation

Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Empty nest syndrome refers to the grief, depression, and loneliness that some parents feel after their children have moved out of the house. Learn about the symptoms of empty nest syndrome, how it can impact health, and more.

Introduction

Imagine that you are a psychologist in your first session with a new female client. You ask about her family life, and she tells you that she has been married for 20 years and has an 18 year old son. She also tells you that her son graduated from high school and moved out of the home 3 months ago to attend college out of state.

You ask your client about her symptoms. She tells you that she has been feeling sad and depressed for the last 2-3 months. She also stated that she has trouble falling asleep at night and her appetite has seemed to disappear. She finished by saying that nothing feels the same since her son moved out of the house. Your client is showing signs of empty nest syndrome.

What is Empty Nest Syndrome?

As parents, we provide and care for our children until they are old enough to do so for themselves. When this happens, our children, who are now young adults, 'leave the nest' to go out and start a life of their own. For example, young adults move away to attend college, start a career, or have children of their own. This requires parents to adjust to life without their children being under the same roof.

For many parents, watching our children grow up and move away leads to feelings of fulfillment, pride, and satisfaction. We are excited to see our children reach the hopes and dreams that we have for them. Though we may experience momentary sadness when they leave, we understand it is a normal part of life, and we find ways to adjust to not having children around. However, for some parents, the sadness does not go away. They find it difficult to adjust to having no children in the home. The feelings of grief and loss that parents feel when their children move away is called empty nest syndrome.

Although it is natural and expected for children to eventually go out on their own, this transition can be difficult for some parents to cope with. Parents may feel extremely sad and lonely once their children leave the house. Parents, especially those who stay at home, may feel a loss of purpose without their children.

Empty nest syndrome can have a significant impact on a parent's health and relationships. The sense of loss and grief that can accompany a child's departure may lead to depression, alcoholism, or problems within the marriage.

Empty nest syndrome is not a formal diagnosis that can be found in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is the authoritative book on mental health diagnoses. This means that a mental health professional cannot diagnose you with empty nest syndrome, but they can help you work through your feelings and concerns.

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