Empty Nest

Isn’t it amazing, the way communities gather around and support a family soon to bring a baby into the world! We arrange baby showers, send gifts and flood expectant parents with tips on how to survive the first stages of welcoming a new family member. Everybody has a shared understanding a parent’s life will change significantly with the birth of a child.


Considering the emphasis we place on transitioning a child into a family, it’s interesting our communities don’t often provide the same support for parents who farewell a child from their family home. There comes a time when most children leave their family home (now days, sometimes more than once!) and for many parents, this transitional period in life can trigger unexpected feelings of loneliness and loss.


Many outsiders make light of this situation, sometimes highlighting the end to a parent’s taxi driver career, or exploring with the parents how they intend to spend their child-free time. For some parents, it can be a very exciting transition! However, the reality is, the moment a child moves out of the family home, many parents become vulnerable to depression, identity crisis and even marital dissatisfaction. It’s so common for parents to experience these troubles when their children leave home that there’s a term to describe it, Empty nest syndrome.


Empty nest syndrome doesn’t just relate to children leaving the ‘family nest’. Not commonly spoken about, is the very real struggle our seniors experience when a partner must transition from the family home, to senior housing such as an aged care facility.


We gather around couples to celebrate marriage and offer advice for transitioning into a shared home, however we don’t gather around couples and provide the same support to them when a partner transitions away from their family home.


This topic explores three top tips to minimise the difficulties parents and partners experience when a family member leaves ‘the nest’. This topic will encourage you to create a purposeful life beyond your family relationships, to build resilience in preparation for these transitional life events we often don’t plan for.


1. Consider your roles in your life.


We all identify with a number of roles throughout our life, perhaps you identify as a daughter or son, friend, or employee. For many of us, none are as important as the role of being a partner or parent. Being a parent is all consuming so it’s no wonder when all children leave the family home, parents can experience a significant loss and crisis of identity and meaning. If you’re a parent, to safeguard yourself from these feelings, it can be helpful to acknowledge that the job of full-time parenting is a stage of life, not the whole of it. Practically what does this mean for a parent? It means you shouldn’t devote yourself to the parenting role to the exclusion of your own interests and other roles that you find purpose in. This will ensure when it comes time for your children to spread their wings, you’ll be less disoriented and have other well-established areas in your life to turn your attention to, and find purpose in.


Similarly, when you’re a senior, it will serve you well to assess your roles in your life and ensure the role of a partner is not all consuming. If a time comes when your partner must transition out of your home to senior housing, it’s going to be vital you are well connected (invested in your role as a friend) and prepared with a hobby (or two) that serves as a valuable distraction during the difficult transition.


2. Invest in your relationship

The relationship of a couple often takes a different path when children are born. As a family grows, couples can easily start to move in different directions and become busy with everyone in the family except with each other. Reigniting emotional connection with your partner once your children leave home is more difficult than maintaining connection with your partner during your journey as parents. The added bonus being, that when the chapter of full-time parenting comes to an end, you’ll be given a new and exciting opportunity for you and your partner to build on the connection you’ve maintained!


Marriage researcher and clinical psychologist, Dr John Gottman highlights the importance of keeping up to date with your partner’s ‘love map’, a detailed understanding of your partner’s world.  As we grow in our role as a parent, our inner world changes and if we don’t want to find ourselves waving our child off from the doorstop standing next to a stranger, we must keep in tune with our partner’s interests, fears, hopes and goals and revise our understanding of these as we move through the different seasons of life with our loved-one.


3. Set new challenges or goals

Distraction is a powerful tool during difficult life transitions. Not that we should run from our feelings, but turning our attention to a big, new, personal or professional goal can ease the sense of loss we might feel when we experience empty nest syndrome.


There is no better time to pinpoint a new goal and devote your energy to it than when your children leave home or your partner begins their journey in senior housing. It also gives you something new to share with your loved-one when you see them after the transition out of home.


Of course, sometimes setting new goals and investing in new roles in our life doesn’t pull us up from the loss we experience when our loved ones leave home. If you’re finding your feelings of emptiness, sadness and loss are too difficult to manage, speak with your doctor who will guide you to the right professional for support.