Empty Nest Syndrome: When Your Unexpected Feelings of Loss Lead to the Very Real Symptoms of Depression and Grief

The transition from being an active parent to having no kids in the home can be tough. Empty nest syndrome is often a normal response: feelings of loss, anxiety, or having no purpose. However, when those natural emotions transition to deep grief or even depression, the consequences are serious. If you or someone you care about is struggling to make the transition to an empty nest, reach out for help. Residential treatment for depression and grief can help.

When children finally spread their wings and leave the home for college or work, parents naturally feel some loss and grief. A major part of your life is over and a new stage is beginning. You will probably worry about your adult child and even miss them.

For some parents, this transition is sad but also a positive change. With children out of the home, they have more time for hobbies, friends, and all kinds of personal enrichment. Some parents embrace this, but others struggle. If you can’t get over the sadness, fear, worry, and sense of loss months after the last child leaves, you may need professional support to cope and manage your grief or even depression.

What Is Empty Nest Syndrome? And Is It Normal?

Empty nest syndrome is not an official diagnosis, but it is a real phenomenon that many parents experience. Recognized for over 100 years, it is most often associated with mothers. This is probably because mothers tend to provide the most care for children in the home. They may feel the loss more so than a father. Empty nest syndrome causes several difficult emotions:

  • Sadness and loss
  • Loneliness
  • Fear and anxiety
  • Loss of purpose

It is perfectly natural and normal to feel sad and even to grieve the loss of your last child from the home. What is not normal is when these symptoms persist for months or worsen into depression or severe or complicated grief.

When Should You Be Worried About Empty Nest Syndrome?

This change in your life can feel like grief, and it can also feel like depression. It may be difficult to recognize that you have transitioned from a normal, temporary sense of loss to actual depression or complicated grief. Look for the signs of depression in yourself or someone you care about going through this:

  • You feel sad, depressed, and hopeless most days.
  • You feel guilty, worthless, and ashamed often.
  • You have lost interest in the things you used to enjoy, such as work or time with friends.
  • There have been changes in how much you sleep or eat and resulting weight loss, weight gain, or fatigue.
  • You struggle to meet responsibilities or summon the energy to do normal activities.
  • Concentrating and getting tasks done has become difficult.
  • You feel anxious, restless, agitated, irritable, or angry.
  • You think about death or suicide.

These symptoms indicate you may be struggling with major depression. If you can’t seem to get past the loss of the last adult child from the home, or you cannot function normally or experience any joy or pleasure in your days, it’s time to reach out to a healthcare professional for a diagnosis.

Why Mothers are at Risk for Empty Nest Grief and Depression

Studies show that women are more likely to struggle with empty nest syndrome and to transition to actual depression. The researchers explain that mothers are often the primary caregivers over the 18-plus years a child spends at home. They are more susceptible to feeling grief, depression, and a loss of purpose in the empty nest phase.

Mothers going through empty nest syndrome are particularly vulnerable to certain reactions to losing their children to the adult world:

  • Although this is changing, society still views motherhood as a woman’s most important role.
  • Children moving out represents a kind of retirement of a mother’s main purpose, which has been tied to her self-esteem and sense of worth for years.
  • Losing that purpose can lead to a feeling of a loss of power and a sense of helplessness.

Men are not immune to these challenges, but women are more likely to go through this difficult process and to adjust poorly to an empty nest.

Get a Mental Health Evaluation

Only a trained mental health professional can diagnose you and determine if your empty nest feelings have become a more serious condition like depression. It’s never wrong to ask for that evaluation. You may be unsure if you really have depression, but if you are wondering and struggling, reach out for help.

Start with your usual doctor if you are unsure who to see about this. Your doctor can give you an idea of what to do next, evaluate your concerns and symptoms, and recommend a good mental health professional.

Call for a Free Confidential Assessment.


Getting Specialized Treatment

Outpatient treatment can help, but spend some time in a residential facility if you can. This will give you the chance to finally focus on you. The last 18 years or more have been devoted to your children, and part of making this a healthier transition is learning to invest in yourself.

Treatment should focus on your depression, but also the root causes. You’ll engage in therapy with a dedicated professional who understands your needs. Support groups with other parents will allow you to share experiences and feelings. And alternative treatments, recreation, and lifestyle changes will help you find new purpose as you learn to enjoy life with adult children.

Learning to Enjoy Your Next Stage of Life

Many individuals with empty nest syndrome are able to manage with healthy coping mechanisms and positive lifestyle changes. If you have depression, though, getting professional treatment becomes necessary.

Once you get through that treatment, you can put those coping strategies to work as you embrace your new life. Focus on the positive aspects of being in an empty nest. For instance, you now have time to do activities or try hobbies that were impossible while raising a family. New activities will give you a new sense of purpose and self-esteem.

This is also a great time to connect with friends. Raising kids often leads to a limited adult social life. Contact old friends or those you rarely see. Reconnect with social activities or join groups with like-minded women to make new friends. Social support is essential as you find new meaning in life.

Finally, work on connecting with your children as adults. One of the beautiful things about this transition is that you get to see the adults you raised. You now have a chance to develop new, closer, and more fulfilling relationships with your children.

Don’t let an empty nest mean the end of meaning in your life. You have decades ahead to enjoy life, to find new hobbies, to reconnect with your spouse, to meet someone new, and to get to know your children in a new way. But if depression has taken hold, all these new pleasures are tough to see. Get the help you need so you can embrace this next stage.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive treatment for men and women struggling with depression, anxiety, trauma, and other mental health issues. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles program and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to lasting wellness.