The Empty Nest Syndrome is not a Mental Disorder

I received a distressed phone call from a woman in New Jersey who reported that she was very anxious and depressed and thought she was suffering from empty nest syndrome. Her last child had left for college and she couldn’t stop crying. In addition she found it unbearable to be with her husband. She felt panicked about the rest of her life. She was referring to “the empty nest syndrome” as if it were a mental disorder.

It is not a formal mental health disorder but for some people it is a phenomenon that has almost taken on the proportions of one. It is not listed in the official book that categorizes and describes mental health disorders, the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, or the DSM IV. It is a term that has come to describe the feelings of sadness and loss that many parents, more particularly women, feel when their young adult children leave home for the first time.

Even though it is not a formal mental disorder some of the mental states that parents experience are in the DSM IV, like anxiety and depression. Most of the time anxiety and depression that we feel is a response to events that occur in our lives. Once we have accepted the reality of those events and have adjusted to the changes these events heralded, these mental states can soften and pass. Occasionally though, these events can trigger underlying anxiety or depression that can throw us into fear and despair requiring mental health treatment that is perhaps long overdue.

The empty nest syndrome is a response to a huge transition that occurs in family life. Like other life transitions experienced in the family, every member is affected. For the child leaving home for the first time there is both fear and elation. The fear is about not knowing whether or not they are ready, not knowing whether or not they are going to the right place. Elation is the feeling knowing they are on the threshold of an adventure into the rest of their lives. If there are still younger siblings, there is sadness at losing the mentoring their older sibling represented, and excitement that they get to take on the role of the older sibling at home.

This life transition is probably the most traumatic for parents. We may surprise ourselves by having strong ambivalent feelings. We want them to go; we don’t want them to go. The part of us that wants them to go is proud and excited about their opportunities to have new experiences and to begin to fulfill the dreams we have had for them. On the other hand the part that wants to hold on to them, is the part that resists change; that wants to keep things the way they are.

We may be both happy and resentful. While we might have difficulty admitting this out loud, a part of us may even resent that our children are having opportunities we never had. Even if we are the ones providing that opportunity! We may resent that our children take for granted their privileged life for which we may have sacrificed our own dreams. These are normal feelings to have, and hard to acknowledge. But once we can express them it will be easier to let them go. Letting these feelings go provides more room for the excitement and pride we feel in helping to let our children go.

We can also be feeling ambivalent about their leaving. Their leaving not only marks an indelible change in the family’s day-to-day life, it also marks the end of a role, which for some, particularly women who have stayed at home to take care of their children, has been life defining. When the last child leaves home that care-taking parent wonders, “Now what?” “Who am I?”

Their leaving forces us to confront realities of our lives that the distraction of family responsibilities has enabled us to keep at bay. One reality is our definition of how we value ourselves. For the couple that has decided to have children, raising them becomes their dominant task and defining self-image until those children leave home. When that task is completed there is a frightening void, particularly for the parent who only valued him or herself as a care-taking parent. Relief comes when that void is filled by other meaningful and satisfying activities.

Probably the most frightening and potentially exciting aspect of this family transition for the parents is redefining the marriage. This is no simple task. For twenty or more years the marriage was primarily the framework for building and maintaining the family. Each couple navigates this task differently. The responsibilities of child rearing might have fallen primarily on one parent while the other worked to pay the bills. Maybe both parents shared these tasks equally. Whichever the pattern was, the degree that each felt supported and partnered in their respective roles can often predict the difficulty or ease at which the couple can redefine their relationship after child rearing is over.

The events comprising the empty nest syndrome, children leaving home- redefining the marital relationship- do not happen suddenly. They are occurring over several years. Children start to break away in high school. Parents have already found themselves without their kids for periods in the summer or on weekends. They may have already planned how they want their lives to be different when their kids are gone. They know they will feel sad but they will have less difficulty negotiating the empty nest transition. It is important to distinguish the normal feelings of sadness and loss from prolonged depression and despair triggered by the empty nest.

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