It is common for parents to experience feelings of depression, grief, or anxiety when a child leaves home for the first time, a sensation known as empty-nest syndrome. While not a clinical diagnosis, many adults suffer these painful emotions while also reconciling feelings of anticipation and pride over their child’s newfound independence.
And with the many starts and stops that the pandemic has brought all of us, there is an added degree of excitement and ongoing uncertainty that both parents and young adults are feeling.
Hillary Van Horn-Gatlin, PhD, clinical psychologist and director of Organizational and Leadership Development in The Permanente Medical Group, meets with patients regularly to talk about this complex, bittersweet life transition. She offers these 5 tips on how to cope.
When a child first leaves, sometimes just being at home can be painful for parents.
“The house becomes a catalog of losses,” explained Dr. Van Horn-Gatlin. “There’s all the laundry that you’re no longer doing; there’s the extra food you keep cooking even though there’s no one at the table to eat it.”
She tells parents to expect to feel sad and embrace any feelings of loss or grief — it’s normal and healthy.
“It’s also important to note that men and women tend to express empty-nest syndrome differently,” she added. “Women tend to seek support through their friends. Men tend to throw themselves into work. It can cause tension in a family, but it’s important to recognize that everyone has their own unique way of reacting to the transition.”
Parents who have spent most of their spare time involved in a child’s activities or social networks are especially impacted by empty-nest syndrome.
“Suddenly, that adult is faced with free time that they hadn’t experienced in years — and they don’t know what to do with it.”
Dr. Van Horn-Gatlin suggests planning ahead and scheduling some fun things to do once a child leaves, like a vacation, an interesting class, or even a regular night out with a spouse, partner, or friends.
“This is also a great time to revisit a long-term goal that was put off during the child-rearing years. Write that book. Go on that backpacking trip. Reconnect with whatever it is that makes you tick.”
“It’s important to let the child set the tone for the transition,” said Dr. Van Horn-Gatlin. “Does your child need more or less support? Do they need help with big things, like handling insurance? Or maybe smaller things, like buying sheets?”
She encourages parents to check in with their child frequently to see what they need — it may be surprising to see what tasks they’d rather handle on their own or what they’d like additional support with.
Even if technologies such as Skype or FaceTime seem daunting, Dr. Van Horn-Gatlin encourages parents to give them a try.
“Technology can really make the separation more doable — especially if the child is far away and frequent trips aren’t realistic,” she said.
Scheduling regular check-ins can also help. “Try setting up a time to talk every Sunday evening or some other time that is mutually convenient for the whole family. Even if it’s just for 10 minutes, that connection — beyond an email or text — can be meaningful for everyone.”
While a family schedule might feel very different, that doesn’t mean the end of fun, regular visits.
“Start a new family tradition,” said Dr. Van Horn-Gatlin. “Try planning something during a college’s parents weekend or try spending the holiday break in a new place. Having something the whole family can look forward to really helps make the separation more bearable.”
Learn more about Kaiser Permanente’s mental health care.