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
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
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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