Middle-age is a time of life that brings change for many parents. One of those changes happens when a young adult moves out of the family home. Some parents experience what’s been dubbed “empty nest syndrome,” an informal term for the sadness, grief and loneliness felt after a child leaves home. For some, these negative feelings can persist and make them vulnerable to developing depression. Empty nest syndrome doesn’t affect every parent. Some parents find the experience of a newly empty house quite liberating, as it allows them to embrace new challenges and endeavors or rekindle old ones. In fact, one study found that marital satisfaction scores were higher for women with empty nests than for those with children still at home. Other parents struggle with empty nest syndrome for just a short period. The negative feelings, however, can impact both men and women. For example, a study of fathers found that some men felt emotionally unprepared when a child left home, regretting the many lost opportunities to be involved in that child’s life . Some women are particularly vulnerable, especially if their lives revolved entirely around caring for their children. Without other things to focus on, they may find themselves struggling with the feeling that they’re no longer needed. Regardless of gender, an empty nester who continues to be weighed down by negative emotions may develop depression. This mood disorder affects the quality of life of the person who’s battling it, as well as those closest to him or her.
Causes of Empty Nest Depression
In general, depression is influenced by a number of risk factors. For example, a person with a family history of the condition is more vulnerable to developing it. Substance abuse is also a well-recognized contributing factor. Depression risk increases for those with a chronic or serious physical illness. Major life changes, such as a grown child leaving home, are risk factors, too. If you’re an empty nester, this transition has the potential to negatively impact your mood in several different ways:
Loss of identity
While children are growing up, some parents define themselves in terms of their role. They come to see themselves primarily as “Tyler’s mom” or “Emma’s dad.” This may be especially true when a parent – usually the mother, but not always – was a primary caregiver who stayed at home. When your grown child leaves for an adult life, it’s easy to find yourself with no one left to guide or care for. This loss of identity has a negative effect on emotional well-being.
You’ve spent the last 18 or more years guiding your children as best you can. But now they’ve moved out into the real world, a place where you’re less able to protect them. It’s not uncommon for parents to worry that they’ve failed to prepare their children in some essential way. Moms and dads also sometimes feel a heavy sense of guilt when an adult child moves out and starts making unhealthy or bad decisions.
For many parents, raising children is an all-consuming task. You’ve likely spent up to two decades focused more on children and less on your relationship with a spouse or partner. When a child moves away from home, you and your partner are forced to become a “couple” again, perhaps for the first time in years. Without the distraction of children, problems in your relationship become much more difficult to ignore. As the two of you now sit down for quiet dinners together, you may find that there’s not much to say. This can create tension and stress that increase depression risk.
Your child has moved out, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he or she is suddenly self-sufficient and independent. College tuition costs are high, and many families find they’re struggling to pay those bills. As an empty nester, you may find yourself weighed down with concerns about how you’ll pay for your child’s college needs, including tuition, textbooks and living expenses. The need to take out college-related loans adds a financial burden to parents as well. Even if your child doesn’t go to college, you may find yourself cosigning an apartment lease or loaning more money than you’d anticipated. Living costs are high, the economy precarious and things don’t always go as planned.
Additional life changes
Other factors sometimes combine with an empty nest to make a parent even more vulnerable to depression. For example, you may be caring for an increasingly frail elderly parent, grieving the loss of a loved one, or battling to remain viable in a rapidly changing workforce. These issues create additional stress and vulnerability. Perimenopause and menopause are common during this time of life as well, creating an additional strain for women trying to cope with an empty nest in addition to the challenge of fluctuating hormones.
Risks of Untreated Depression
Depression is a serious psychiatric disorder that interferes with daily living. It causes a person to feel helpless and hopeless. Depressed individuals often also struggle with insomnia, feelings of worthlessness, poor concentration and low energy. It can also cause unwanted weight gain or loss due to mood-related changes in appetite. Without treatment, depression can linger for months or even years. This can create even more problems because depression can damage important relationships, hamper job performance and make life virtually impossible to enjoy. Depression also raises the risk for substance abuse and is a significant risk factor for suicide.
Treatment for Depressed Empty Nesters
It’s normal to feel sadness, grief or loneliness after a child leaves home; it’s not normal for those emotions to interfere with your daily life. Depression symptoms are treatable:
Seek professional help
If you’ve noticed negative changes in your mood, seek out the help of a mental health professional. Talk therapy will help you examine the underlying issues contributing to your depression. A skilled therapist can help you reduce symptoms of depression in a variety of ways. For example, you may learn how to adjust negative thoughts patterns, challenge distorted beliefs and unrealistic expectations, or find a new sense of purpose for this chapter in your life. Antidepressant medications may be prescribed for moderate to severe depression. These are best used in conjunction with psychotherapy.
If you’re feeling depressed because the empty nest triggered a loss of identity, it’s time to redefine yourself. Do something you’ve always wanted to do, whether it’s going back to college, exploring entrepreneurial avenues, or getting back into the workforce. Volunteer work is also a great outlet that allows you to continue to care for others in a way that is both interesting and fulfilling.
Reconnect with friends and family
At times, caring for children comes at the expense of relationships with close friends and extended family. When your grown child leaves home, make time regularly to catch up with friends, take a sibling to lunch or host a party. Feeling a sense of connectedness with others will help improve your mood and overall sense of well-being. If you experience symptoms of depression that are interfering with your life, contact a mental health professional to set up an appointment for an evaluation. With a treatment plan in place, you’ll learn to manage your symptoms so you can find yourself enjoying life once again.