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Launching Your Young Adult: The Empty Nest Syndrome Experience
By: Samantha Eve Morris, MS MFT
The launching process is a daunting task for both young adults and their caregivers. Parents spend the majority of their child’s first 18 years of life preparing them for what’s to come when they leave their respective homes and start their journeys as young adults in college. This is especially difficult for parents whom homeschool their children and aren’t familiar with the feeling of an “empty nest”, as they are faced with renegotiating boundaries and redefining household roles while encouraging autonomy. At this point, parents commonly ponder the notion of, “what do I do now?”
Empty Nest Syndrome (ENS) is a label that describes a wide array of emotions that parents experience when they have launched or are in the process of launching their young adult children from the home, and are literally left with an “empty nest”. These emotions range from sadness and loneliness from being without their children, to spurts of happiness from a sense of fulfillment and then guilt for experiencing the mix of emotions. These emotional symptoms are so common that practitioners labeled this phenomenon, “Empty Nest Syndrome” (ENS). To be clear, ENS is not a clinical disorder nor diagnosis, but rather a term used to help parents acknowledge this life cycle stage and identify effective strategies to help them cope with this perceived loss.
The aforementioned emotions are a normal part of the launching process, as parents are indeed coping with a profound sense of loss. It’s important for parents to be aware of the emotions they are experiencing, as research indicates that ENS makes parents more vulnerable to negative outcomes such as depression, marital conflict and substance abuse. So the question is this… what can parents do to cope with ENS? Well, the good news is that this is the time when parents get to focus on themselves and reestablish who they are as individuals and as a couple. Remember the days before having children when the choice of entertainment, travel and meals were at your sole discretion? Parents…that time has come once again!
When parents launch their children, they are provided the opportunity to redefine themselves, reconnect with one another as a couple, and rekindle passions and interests that they may not have had time for while raising children. Parents can adequately cope with ENS by keeping yourselves busy, looking for new personal and professional opportunities and engage one another in interpersonal activities. This approach of seeing the glass half full not only helps to avoid exacerbated symptoms of ENS, but also truly will enhance the quality of your lives and relationships. Parents spend approximately 18 years molding their children into independent young adults with morals, values and good choices. This is the time when parents get to see the fruit of their labor blossom, albeit at a distance. But don’t fret parents; your young adults will still need you… just in a different way.
- Launching as an Individual Experience: If you’re launching your child(ren) then you did a good job parents! Accept that you have prepared your child to be independent, and when the time has come in which they are ready to leave the home, support them in their decision. Focus your energy on how you can help your young adult succeed in this new life cycle stage and remember, it’s a scary time for them too.
- Communicate: Communicate your feelings to your partner, as they may share in your feelings and concerns; and you can be a huge support for one another. Communicate your feelings to your child, so they feel comfortable expressing their concerns with you and understand where you are coming from (This will also help put things into perspective for your young adult when they notice that you call/text 10 times a day to make sure they are okay). Let your young adult know that you are a phone call away, but you trust them to make good choices and want them to have the opportunity to grow and be autonomous while figuring things out on their own.
- Resources: Remember that ENS is common and the chances are high that you and your partner know others that have had similar experiences. Reach out to family and friends for support and guidance, and be comfortable sharing your feelings and concerns. If you’re in need of additional support, contact a mental health practitioner.
Remember parents; if you are launching your young adult you did a great job! Your child(ren) are going out into the world to make meaningful contributions and continue to grow. Let that positive feeling of a job well done carry over into your new stage of life and enjoy the process of redefining yourself, just as your children are!