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Faith and Family: Empty Nest Syndrome óDetermination, focus on priorities important for parents dealing with children leaving homecomment (0)

October 11, 2012

By Sondra Washington


Faith and Family: Empty Nest Syndrome óDetermination, focus on priorities important for parents dealing with children leaving home

Even in the delivery room parents are warned, “Don’t blink, or your baby will be all grown up.” This well-intentioned advice encourages parents to cherish every moment with their children who will too quickly become adults and fly the coop. 

Once that time comes, many parents feel a great void in their lives and have considerable difficulty dealing with the emotions it causes. This is the dread of the empty nest, but there is hope.

According to Stephanie Wynn, a family psychiatric nurse practitioner and associate professor at Samford University in Birmingham, 50 to 75 percent of people will suffer from Empty Nest Syndrome, the depression or sadness parents feel when their children leave home. While there is no scientific research linking Empty Nest Syndrome to chemical imbalances or other psychological problems, it is a common separation stress with symptoms varying in severity from family to family.

“It is a real issue,” Wynn said. “People can be vulnerable to alcoholism, fighting with their spouses or little things that are happening because the child left. A lot of people get divorced after children leave the home. … Some people even describe it as a death.”

Rod Marshall, president and CEO of Alabama Baptist Children’s Homes & Family Ministries, calls the empty nest syndrome a stage of life event.

“However, for some of us — probably about 10 percent — when we go through stressful times, we may discover that our neurochemistry is primed for depression or anxiety,” he said.

In severe cases, empty nesters may have trouble coping with their emotions without counseling or medication.

“If this sadness becomes unbearable or lasts more than a few weeks, or if you feel sad most of the time, most days of the week, most weeks of the month, it would be a really good idea to schedule an appointment with your physician and talk to them about being screened for depression and to talk to a professional counselor about some strategies for dealing with depression,” Marshall noted.

Wynn added, “If a person feels like they can’t go on in their life, starts staying at home and not doing normal things that they did before the child left, can’t find means to satisfy that loneliness with hobbies and other things that they can do, that’s when they start getting into trouble.”

She noted that often these severe signs may prevent sufferers from seeking help. 

“That’s why it’s important to have some type of support system, be it your family or friends,” Wynn said.

Marshall believes the empty nest issue has become increasingly complicated over the years.

“Historically there were cultural norms on how children leave the home and those lines have been blurred,” he said. 

“Some leave to go to college. A lot of kids leave and come back. … There used to be a declaration of independence, but now people could be in their 40s and still
have a box full of stuff at their parents’ house.”

Despite how families transition into this period of life, both Wynn and Marshall believe it can be difficult to endure without determination.

“So many parents have spent their child’s adolescence and their time centered around their child’s activities that it becomes almost as demanding as their career,” Marshall said. 

“When the child leaves, they have to figure out what they want to do with the last half of their lives and sometimes people are confused about what they want to do,” Marshall added. 

“It can be a challenging time of stagnation instead of growth. Sometimes the parents can feel stuck and not sure what they want to do with the available resources and time that had previously [been] devoted to taking care of the lives of their children.”

Much of the dread regarding the empty nest is focused on fear of children striking out on their own in the world after leaving the parental home, Wynn said. 

Many parents in today’s society want to make sure their children have the things they felt like they went without, and this becomes their mission in life instead of focusing on how to help their children succeed as they mature and leave. Instead of dreading this occurrence, she said parents should accept this as a necessary part of life.

“It’s what they are supposed to do,” she said.

Marshall said parents also can experience regret wishing they had raised their children differently.

“It is always tempting to look at one’s life and to be the ‘Monday morning quarterback,’” he said. 

“With the benefit of hindsight, it becomes very obvious which of our decisions were our best decisions and which of our decisions were our worst decisions,” he said. “The problem is that sometimes we become fixated upon decisions that were not our best decisions. If we have made hundreds of very good decisions and a few bad decisions and maybe even one really bad parenting decision, we tend to lose sight of the hundreds and become fixated upon the one we wish we could do over. The reality is that we do not get a ‘do over’ in life.”

He noted that parents can do two things to help them cope with these types of emotions.

“First, we can choose to focus our energies on the things we are proud of and feel good about (which will almost always outweigh our poorer choices) and, secondly, we can learn from any mistakes we might have made, repair any damage we might have caused and decide to make better choices in the future,” he said. “Sometimes, the repair might even involve apologizing to our young adult children to restore those relationships.”

Another complication can occur when children continue to return to and leave from the parents’ home. 

Wynn said in some cases, this can trigger a sort of relapse for empty nesters who had difficulty with the first separation.

“It could possibly trigger a relapse like one compared to a substance abuse or another kind of mental disorder,” she said. “The child could fill that void (which made the parent depressed and lonely) and the parent becomes happy again, but when the child moves out again it could trigger more intense feelings of grief or loneliness than it did the first time. In cases of relapse, every relapse is usually worse than the one before.”

The attempt to avoid this type of pain may be why some children in today’s society are staying home longer than ever before in history, according to Wynn.

“They’re comfortable their parents are comfortable and there is not a big push for them to leave,” Wynn said. “Your focus as a parent should be on what you can do to help your child succeed.”

It is this kind of preparation that Wynn said can help alleviate some of the stress associated with the child leaving home as an adult and the parent worrying about not being there to do various things for them.

Marshall added that the key to overcoming the difficulties of the empty nest lies in redefining your purpose.

“If parents have focused on the spiritual growth of their adolescents and youth discipleship, once the child is not there anymore, the adult will have to choose if they are going to continue being active in their church or if they are going to be less active,” he said. “Are they going to focus on their own spiritual development or stop focusing there? … It’s a great opportunity for spiritual growth or an opportunity to become spiritually lazy. It depends on what decisions you make when you’re in the midst of it.”

Marshall noted that once empty nesters’ children are out of the house, the couple can go on missions trips or volunteer in service or ministry areas that they were not able to be involved in before.

“I know a couple who became foster parents while both their kids are in college … with no hope of adopting … just taking care of children that need to be cared for,” he said. 

“Rather than being despondent about their kids leaving, they are thrilled to have this new opportunity for ministry,” Marshall said.

This type of focused thinking also applies to other areas of life, including marital relationships.

“Unfortunately some people neglect their marriages in an effort to do an outstanding job as a parent, and they don’t realize that the best thing you can do for your children is have a good marriage,” Marshall said. 

“This is a time to reignite intimacy and passions and shared goals and shared values. … If they’ve (a married couple) grown in different directions, they have to choose to come back together once they have that opportunity.”

Wynn said parents should prepare for and accept the timing of their children leaving home.

“Devote that extra time to your marriage or some kind of personal interest or hobby,” she said. 

“You can start planning ahead so you can take those things up when they leave the home. If you continue to have a difficult time, seek some type of support. It could be loved ones, close friends or others (in similar situations). … A lot of times people need people to listen to them and confirm [that] what they are going through is real and in time that will pass.”

Most of all, Wynn and Marshall believe parents should think positively about their children’s development and continue to have a close relationship with them even when separated.

“Every stage in your child’s life is different but every stage has things about it that you can really celebrate and enjoy,” Marshall said. 

“It’s definitely going to be different, but different doesn’t mean worse. I think empty nest is just like any other time of life. We just have to focus on what our priorities are and make sure we are moving toward the goal we want to achieve.”

EDITOR’S NOTE — Starting January 2013, The Alabama Baptist will begin a bimonthly series called Faith and Family, which will focus on family-related issues.. The series will feature expert advice and practical tips on the psychological, theological and relational issues affecting today’s family.

To read other articles in this package, click here, here or here

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