Empty Nest: From a Single Parent’s Perspective

As a therapist, you might think I’d be prepared for the feelings surrounding my only child leaving for college. Before she left, when people asked how I was feeling about it, I’d tell them the truth (a good idea for a Christian, right?). Her leaving was probably the best thing that could happen to our relationship at that time. I was proud of her and looking forward to her continuing to grow as an adult (partly so she could grow in appreciation of her wonderful mother). I wasn’t too worried about “empty nest syndrome,” as I had a good life including fulfilling work which required many hours, enjoyable hobbies, loving friends/family, and lots of cleaning to catch up on if I ever had enough time to get bored! But I experienced it all the same.

The painful truth is that empty nest is synonymous with grief. Grief isn’t just about death and loss, it’s about change. Even when the change is something wonderful, something is getting left behind.

When dealing with an adult child leaving the home, it can feel like we are the ones getting left behind.

Symptoms of empty nest can be:

  • Significant increase in levels of isolation.
  • Intense loneliness.
  • Mild to severe depression.
  • Identity crisis and/or perception of a lack of purpose.
  • Increased conflict with your support system.
  • Greater vulnerability to alcoholism.

As a single parent, here are some possible additional challenges:

  • Losing a greater percentage of your “reason for living.” (Fight that desire to call and “help” your adult; your desire to parent should not outweigh his/her desire to be independent.)
  • Increased ability to isolate and strengthen depression. Isolation and depression tend to be a strong spiral downward that is difficult to stop.
  • Increased belief that no one knows exactly how you feel. Humanly speaking, this is unfortunately true. However, there is One who knows how you feel and cares more than anyone else ever possibly could. It’s important to remind yourself whenever this thought occurs.
  • Fewer support resources for 24/7. It seems like the depressed feelings happen most when those who might care would be sleeping. The married can whisper, “Are you awake?” and have someone there. Single parents with an empty nest? Not so much.

Some functional ways to cope:

  • Begin/refocus on self-care, such as exercise and eating healthy.
  • Spend some of your “extra time” in prayer and Bible study.
  • Make new connections. Join a Bible study group.
  • Join a group that does a hobby you enjoy (e.g.: a book club, a cooking class, an outdoor adventure group).
  • Talk about it. See a good counselor, particularly if depressive symptoms are interfering with functioning in everyday life.

Some things NOT to do:

  • Do not, I repeat, do not keep calling your adult and “guilt” them into checking in or listening to your feelings about empty nest. This is likely to drive a wedge into your relationship-- you still feel lonely and his/her maturing process may be complicated.
  • Do not start acting out with the opposite sex out of loneliness. You are likely to regret it deeply at some point…. Be careful if beginning to date at this time.
  • Whatever you do, DON’T LOSE HOPE! While this time is a very trying one, it can also become a time of great blessing as we discover/rediscover support resources, untapped strengths and gifts, and a deeper relationship with God. It is not surprising that God has already provided many of our answers through His Word and the body of Christ. When an adult child has not left home in a positive way and worry is what you are experiencing, peace can still be found. Philippians 4:6-8 instructs, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” God’s peace is available when we turn over our concerns and place our trust in him.

By the way, my adult daughter is currently doing her student teaching. Since the school prohibits additional working, she moved back home for a semester! She became engaged over Christmas and will be moving out when she graduates to live near her fiancé (I have a hard time getting used to saying that word). I’m REALLY happy for her! I don’t expect to have ANY problems at all with empty nest THIS time (just kidding)!

About the author — Debi Mitchell, MS, LMFT

Debi Mitchell is an Indiana Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at Chicago Christian Counseling Center. Debi has extensive experience working with adolescent behavioral and emotional issues, family counseling, grief/loss, trauma, depression, anxiety, and working through difficult adjustments to life changes. Her greatest desire is to reflect the light of Christ in the midst of life’s dark moments.

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