Parents who feel discouraged after their young children leave for college may wonder if they are out of step when they see online videos depicting newly created empty nesters dancing It is to celebrate their lives without children. But the truth is, the first few weeks and months after kids leave home can be unsettling for many parents, said Dr. David Nathan, a licensed psychologist and East Region leader for Allina Health.
Nathan, who practices outside of Allinas Highland Park Clinic in St. Paul, says the departure of a young child is often a significant trauma for parents, many of whom never expected the transition to be so difficult.
Just like when a loved one dies or someone breaks up with us, having our children leave home is a big deal for the human mind, Nathan said. Someone who is very close to us, who is a very important part of our life, is no longer there. It is difficult and important to recognize the feelings that transition evokes in our bodies and minds.
Nathan treats people of all ages and genders, although he said about 70 to 80 percent of his patient population is male. He discovered that men experience empty nest syndrome as often as women, but they are less likely to recognize their symptoms in themselves or to recognize them in other men.
I think our society doesn’t do a good job of telling young men that it’s okay to talk about these transitions or how they make them feel, he said. Many times, many guys, especially older ones, are reluctant to talk openly about it or admit their feelings. In fact, Nathan said, many of the men he treats for empty nest syndrome do so at someone else’s request: A lot of times a guy gets referred to me because his wife or girlfriend or boss says, You need to talk to someone.
Recently, Nathan and I discussed the impact of the empty nest experience on mental health and the ways in which he helps his patients adapt to this new stage of life. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
MinnPost: When did you start talking to patients who were struggling after their children left the nest?
David Nathan: I started talking to people about empty nest syndrome relatively early in my career. It really is a core difficulty, a common struggle for many parents. If people have children, they will probably experience this feeling. In some cases, children continue to live with their parents as they grow older. But most of the time, children move away. Often, but not always, this is a very difficult transition. It is often more difficult for the parents than for the child.
MP: How would you define empty nest syndrome?
DN: There is not a DSM diagnosis of empty nest syndrome. Instead, someone may be diagnosed with anxiety or depression or adjustment disorder. The underlying issue that triggers these symptoms is the fact that the child is no longer at home.
Often, empty nest syndrome is defined by a sense of loss. Most of us like things in our lives to be predictable and familiar, especially when it comes to our relationships with our children. When a young person reaches their late teens and 20s, they are ready to start their own life. They are raring to go. They feel repressed by their parents. This is difficult for many parents. It’s like breaking up with someone, like ending a relationship.
MP: What types of symptoms do your patients experience when their children leave home?
DN: One of the ways I look at mental health is that when something bad happens to us, there are several ways the mind responds. One way is to internalize symptoms like anxiety or depression, keeping things inside our mind and having obsessions about certain subjects. A second way is externalized symptoms. These are symptoms in which someone demonstrates their feelings indirectly, but in a more external way. They may become irritable, hit objects or break things. They may even get into fights. The third form is somatic symptoms, or loss of body, such as severe headaches, stomach pains or rashes.
MP: How do you help patients make connections between these symptoms and the big life changes they are experiencing?
ND: If someone comes to see me and says that they are feeling depressed or impatient or that they are having difficulty with anger, as a psychologist I ask myself what is the core issue that is contributing to them feeling this way? If I know that their child recently left home, I can help them understand that this is a different kind of loss, and despite what they have heard from others or what they think for themselves, this loss can be significant.
People often don’t associate an empty nest with symptoms. It depends on people’s understanding of how they respond to stress and change. With many people I can point out things to them and say: It’s very difficult when your child leaves. You miss your children. Our kids should go away, but it still makes sense that you’re sad. In addition to simply missing having their child at home, parents may also just worry about their child, like, will they be okay without us around? What if something happens to them?
I explain that it’s okay to have these types of emotions. It’s healthy to be aware of all the feelings we have and then think of ways to cope with them.
MP: Compared to when I was in college, parents are now much more connected to their children. They can text and FaceTime every day if they want. Does this connection help with empty nest syndrome?
DN: I think one of the cool things about living in 2023 is that we have all this amazing technology. We can FaceTime people. We can video chat with people on the computer, but it’s actually not the same. Even if you chat for half an hour online every day, it’s not the same as seeing them at breakfast or spending time with them on the weekend.
MP: Do pop culture-fueled assumptions about liberation from the empty nest make people who are truly sad about this transition feel ashamed of their emotions?
DN: It may take time to create new patterns and develop a way of coping with the loss and adjusting to the changes that are happening. This is normal. If you feel sad and helpless after your child leaves home, it’s not like you did anything wrong or are weak. It’s typical. It’s the natural response.
First, I want to make sure people understand that it’s okay, okay, and appropriate to be sad, to acknowledge that this happened and that you’re sad about it. Recognizing the source of what makes us feel something is important.
MP: How do you suggest parents deal with these troubling feelings?
ND: Everyone is a little different. It may be that they have the kind of relationship with their child where they can schedule a regular call to check in on him. But you should ask your child in advance if he can do this.
I also think it’s important for people to take time to do things for themselves that help them in the healing process. Be patient with yourself. Think of this experience as if you were in a car accident: you would be sore for a while and it would take time to get better. Your inside It is their external parts may be injured. If your body was really shaken up in an accident, it will take a while for everything to recover. The same goes for your mental health.
MP: Have you talked to people who worry that their experience isn’t as amazing as the empty experiences they see on Instagram or TikTok?
ND: I hear this all the time. I think social media is so useless. What matters is getting clicks, not reality. In fact, it can make people feel more isolated and depressed. This is all about making money or getting attention. It’s not about being accurate, truthful, or even useful.
If you’re feeling bad or discouraged about what’s going on in your life, don’t go on Instagram. It is not an accurate description of a typical person’s life. It’s completely normal to have mixed feelings about your child leaving home. Being an empty nester is not so happy and happy Disney version from The Little Mermaid. This is very far from reality, which can sometimes seem more like the Hans Christian Andersen’s version.
Recognize that leaving your children is a big transition. I mentioned the metaphor of when someone dies or someone breaks up with you. The departure of our children is equally great.
MP: Do you have personal experience with empty nest syndrome?
DN: I have children, but they are not old enough to leave yet. Having children was something very, very, very important. It’s probably not fair to say that having a child leave for college is as important as when the child is born, but it’s still a big deal and we need to recognize that.
MP: What about people who aren’t as sad when their child leaves? Has anyone ever told you that they feel guilty, that they should be more sad about the situation?
DN: Sometimes people feel this way and tell me they thought they should feel bad about the transition, but they didn’t. I just say there is no right way to feel something. You just need to pay attention to those feelings and honor them. Our emotions are like the dashboard of our car: they tell us when something is happening in our body that we should be aware of before everything breaks down.
I think in the US, a lot of guys, a lot of people in general, work so much that even when we’re really overwhelmed, we don’t pay attention to our emotions as much as we should to support our overall health. I ask people: what are your emotions? What do you feel? If you’re feeling bad, what are some things that can help you feel less bad?
We can always cover our dashboard and keep driving. But we won’t know when we need to put gas in the car or when we’re going too fast or when the check engine light comes on. Eventually we have to look at the dashboard. We need to check in with our feelings every now and then and see if we need help.
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