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Empty nest syndrome is a feeling of grief and loneliness parents or guardians may feel when their children leave home for the first time, such as to live on their own or to attend a college or university. It is not a clinical condition.
Since a young adult moving out from his or her parents' house is generally a normal and healthy event, the symptoms of empty nest syndrome often go unrecognized. This can result in depression and a loss of purpose for parents, since the departure of their children from "the nest" leads to adjustments in parents' lives. Empty nest syndrome is especially common in full-time mothers.
All parents are susceptible to empty nest syndrome, although some factors can create a predisposition to it. Such factors include an unstable or unsatisfactory marriage, a sense of self based primarily on identity as a parent, or difficulty accepting change in general. Full-time parents (stay-at-home mothers or fathers) may be especially vulnerable to empty nest syndrome. Adults who are also dealing with other stressful life events such as menopause, the death of a spouse, or retirement are also more likely to experience the syndrome.
Symptoms of empty nest syndrome can include depression, a sense of loss of purpose, feelings of rejection, or worry, stress, and anxiety over the child's welfare. Parents who experience empty nest syndrome often question whether or not they have adequately prepared their child to live independently.
Many mothers, often the primary caregivers, are more likely than fathers to experience empty nest syndrome. However, research has shown that some fathers expressed feelings that they were unprepared for the emotional transition that comes with their child leaving home. Others have stated feelings of guilt over lost opportunities to be more involved in their children's lives before they left home.
Empty nest parents often face new challenges, such as establishing a new kind of relationship with their children, having to find other ways to occupy their free time, reconnecting with each other, and a lack of sympathy from people who believe that parents should be happy when their children leave home.
One of the easiest ways for parents to cope with empty nest syndrome is to keep in contact with their children. Technological developments such as cell phones, text messaging, and the internet all allow for increased communication between parents and their children.
Parents going through empty nest syndrome can ease their stress by pursuing their own hobbies and interests in their increased spare time. Discussing their grief with each other, friends, families, or professionals may help them. Experts have advised that overwhelmed parents keep a journal, or go back to work if they were full-time parents.
A growing body of research on marriage has shown that the presence of children decreases overall marriage satisfaction and happiness. Children often bring about financial stress to a couple, impose time constraints, and create an abundance of household duties, especially for women. On average, couples with children can only spend about one-third the time alone together than they did before having children. Thus empty nest parents can rekindle their own relationship by spending more time together. Without their children to be their primary focus during the day, many such couples express that their quality of time spent together improves.
In the last decade, the so-called "Boomerang Generation"—young adults who return to live with their parents—have changed the traditional empty nest dynamics. Factors such as the high unemployment rate in the United States and constrained job markets have been used to explain the surge in such individuals. Census data from 2008 showed that as many as 20 million 18- to 34-year-olds (34% of that age group) were living at home with their parents. A decade earlier, only fifteen percent of men and eight percent of women in that age range did so.