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Parents Suffering from Empty Nest Syndrome, ‘Not Alone’ Experts Say…

Parents suffering from empty nest syndrome reflect on their ways of coping with children moving out

An illustration of a swan looking longingly down into an empty nest.
While a significant portion of parents are sad to see their children fly the nest, many greet this new milestone with happiness.()

A lot of fuss is made around the liberation of being an empty nester — all that freedom, not to mention a cleaner house.

But for some parents, rather than break out the champagne and turn their child’s bedroom into a home gym, they struggle with feelings of loss and anxiety.

Empty nest syndrome refers to the grief experienced by parents when one or all their children have left the family home to live elsewhere.

“I recall a very good friend of mine telling me she was lost and needing to find direction again,” Angela Pearce, a mother of two children aged 25 and 21, said.

“That really resonated with me as I had been trying to come up with a word to describe how I felt, you are searching for a whole new way of life that you haven’t had to experience before.”

Pearce Family

The Pearce family (left to right): Lawson, Angela, Zara, Brett and Jordon Partridge.

But Dr Marjorie Collins, the president of the Institute of Clinical Psychologists, said it was important to recognise empty nest syndrome is not a “clinical condition”.

“Empty nest syndrome is probably more significant in our culture today, as we largely live in nuclear families, so a change in the family structure or living arrangements impacts on families to a greater degree than in cultures where extended family is more involved with one another,” she said.

A family of five sitting together on a couch.

The Pfitzner family (from left to right): Aliza, Kevin, Meg, Bernadene and Jacob.(Supplied)

Like Ms Pearce, Bernadette Pfitzner, a mother of three children aged 31, 29 and 24, also grappled with a feeling of emptiness.

“Talking to our friends helped us realise this is just another stage of parenting,” Ms Pfitzner said.

Feelings of loss can come along even in the years leading up to a child leaving home, Dr Collins said.

“It is a transition that takes place over a period of time,” she said.

“But it is important to recognise there are positive aspects to this transition, as the parent comes to redefine themselves apart from the role of active rearing and support of children.

“Just because your children have moved out of home, doesn’t mean you can’t see or communicate with them regularly and foster loving and respectful relationships.

“I hope that in the future we will be able to reduce the time spent at work and have more time to holiday and enjoy taking part in our children’s lives as they become parents themselves,” Ms Pfitzner said.

A woman with short red hair and wearing a pink turtleneck shirt smiles into the camera for a professional headshot.

Dr Marjorie Collins.

It’s a strategy Dr Collins agrees with.

“I recommend specific focus on introducing new activities and interests in one’s life, so the feeling of ’emptiness’ is less acute,” she said.

“I am keen to move on, but my husband isn’t,” Ms Pearce said.

“The house is too big for us, but he built it especially for us … also where do we go? What sort of house do we need now?

“It was easy when the kids were little to know the sort of home we needed, but now we are at crossroads – do we need a unit, or something bigger?”

Downsides, but benefits as well

While a significant portion of parents (41.1 per cent) are sad to see their children fly the nest, more than half (51.4 per cent) greet this new milestone with happiness.

That’s according to The Empty Nesters Report from 2018, the fourteenth instalment of The Australian Seniors Series, an ongoing national study investigating the shifting attitudes and concerns affecting Australia’s over 50s.

The report also found while there are downsides to becoming empty nesters, like missing our children being around the house (60.0 per cent), having less frequent contact (58.9 per cent) and worrying about how they are doing (56.0 per cent), there are positives.

Ms Pfitzner said she was now allowed to be “more spontaneous”.

“Our daily routine is simple, we only have to think about ourselves,” she said.

Ms Pearce had her own words of wisdom for people struggling with empty nest syndrome.

“Take comfort in the fact that you have brought your children up to have the confidence to go out into the world on their own, safe in the knowledge that they have a soft-landing place back home.”

Dr Collins said help was available.

“If emotions feel too much, and beyond the normal feelings of unease or loss, or if the feelings persist, then reach out for additional mental health support with a GP or psychologist who can help with the adjustment,” she said.

Relationships Australia also offer support for empty nesters on 1300 364 277.