The familiar sounds are back. Rumbling yellow school buses, the roar of crowds at football games, children giggling together, parents pleading for just one more first-day photo — this time with a smile. Other adults, though, face an eerie quiet that’s far from a relief. While most move well through their child’s transition to college (and can be forgiven for wanting to do a happy dance), some need help to shake their sadness. “Life doesn’t come with a handbook that says, ‘This is how you handle this life stage,’ ” said Eddie Luker, a clinical therapist at the Mayo Clinic Health System in La Crosse, Wis. Luker offers parents guidance to address “empty nest syndrome” and also to find joy in new possibilities.
Q: Is “empty nest syndrome” an actual thing?
A: It’s not an actual clinical diagnosis. However, it speaks to a life development issue — aging. At the stage of life when empty nest occurs, parents may experience a sense of grief and loss, as raising a child — parenting — might be the person’s main purpose in life. It has become part of their identity. So, when the nest becomes empty, some parents experience depression-like symptoms. Some parents, or other significant adults, become vulnerable to problems such as substance abuse or gambling.
Q: Is this a baby boomer phenomenon? I’m guessing that my parents, who lived through World War II, didn’t mourn their empty nest, despite how charming my brothers and I certainly were.
A: I’m not sure if this is just a boomer experience. However, this generation has had the opportunity to explore empty nest realities and give voice to this stage in life. From personal experience, my mother, who was from the Depression generation, experienced a profound period of depression that began when the oldest of our six siblings left home. She tried to hide this from our family, but it was apparent to all of us that she struggled when each child moved on.
Q: So, you don’t have to have an entirely empty nest to feel sad?
A: Correct. This is the beginning of the recognition that we’re in this stage now. Our role is changing.
Q: What are some of the most common symptoms of this malaise?
A: People may exhibit signs of depression, and may isolate themselves from the family. There may be increased alcohol consumption or increase in anxiety and its related medication.
Q: If you sense that your partner is in this bad place, what’s the most helpful thing to do? You certainly don’t want to shame him or her.
A: You want to listen to them, encourage them to talk. You don’t need to fix anything. Let them know you’re here and you understand what they’re saying.
Q: Typically, how long might this heavy period last? At what point should you begin to worry that it’s not just a normal life cycle that you, or your partner, will pull out of?
A: I wouldn’t put a time table on it. It’s better to measure how much of a disruption is being caused. Are they beginning to lose interest in things that they used to find pleasure in? If this goes on for a week or two, and they are reluctant to talk to you, that’s significant. Encourage them to get professional help.
Q: You also talk about the importance of staying busy, finding new interests.
A: I encourage parents to find other outlets that give their lives new meaning, such as mentoring other kids or finding a volunteer activity that brings them a sense of purpose.
Q: What are the biggest worries parents feel when launching their kids?
A: Safety. Parents wonder, “Will my child be safe, OK?” The parental role of protector becomes challenging. It’s best to give voice to these fears. If we don’t talk about these nightmare scenarios that are playing out in our head, they will take seed. By talking it out, you’ll get a reality check from others. “Yeah, how likely is that, really?”
Q: Is there sometimes guilt associated with this transition? Maybe parents that they feel they missed too much, were too busy, too strict, too emotionally absent, too permissive, and now the kiddo is out the door. The heavy-lifting of parenting is largely done.
A: With most parents I’ve worked with, there seems to always be some degree of doubt regarding the quality of their parenting. I tell them, look at your child and note all their wonderful strengths and characteristics. Chances are, you’ve raised kids with their own code of ethics and they got that from you.
Q: Might some couples also face another difficult reality — a marriage in trouble, something they could ignore in the busyness of raising kids?
A: Yes, they may have been so focused on the kids and, then, here we are and we’re not who we were 18 years ago. This requires what I call “re-romanticizing.” It’s time to start dating again, to do the things that brought you together in the first place.
Q: What’s the best way to stay in touch with the emerging adults just the right amount?
A: Ask them, so they have ownership. “How often would you like me to call you?”
Q: It’s also possible that, as soon as Mom or Dad finds a fantastic new hobby, and starts loving the quiet, the kid will boomerang back. What do you say about that?
A: (Laughing) Round two.