Is Empty-Nest Syndrome Nothing but an Empty Myth?

Far from falling apart, many parents relish the change that comes when children leave home.


Back when I lived at home, my mother didn't exactly like dogs. And probably for good reason, considering her rather rocky relationship with both my beloved childhood pooches. There was the beagle that gnawed our bookshelves to a splintery pulp, gutted the family sofa, and relieved himself on nearly every carpet in our house, and the spaniel, which jumped on a pregnant friend's stomach, paraded the wilted carcass of a bird it had killed in front of dinner guests, and always barked rabidly at the mailman. So I was understandably surprised when she recently announced—after seven years of dog-free living—that she planned to buy a new one. And not just any breed, mind you, but a Newfoundland—a black behemoth known for spraying spit missiles with every shake of its head. Even though she'll deny it, I suspect she's got a twinge of empty-nest syndrome. (Either that, or her announcement just happened to coincide with my brother's recent exodus to college—my parents' last child to flee the coop.)

Although a furry addition to my mom's suddenly child-free home might make it feel less empty, new research suggests that this transitional time isn't actually as somber as parents might anticipate—that, in fact, it may be gratifying. Good to hear, for the sake of Mom's mental health.

"We have a myth that [empty-nest syndrome] is associated with parents' questioning who they are as men and women," says Christine Proulx of the University of Missouri-Columbia, whose latest findings appeared in February's Journal of Family Issues. But far from falling apart, she says, "many parents relish the change and enjoy it while it's occurring." Proulx surveyed scores of parents whose eldest child had just skedaddled (many still had a younger child at home) and found that most reflected on the change with joy. A little distance seemed to strengthen bonds with firstborns, as parent-child relationships became more "peerlike", shifting from that of boss-subordinate to that of mentor-mentee. It gave them pride to watch their offspring mature and gain independence.

Unmade beds, backtalk, and blown curfews become nonissues, making it easier to enjoy this "very nice period" in the relationship, says Karen Fingerman, associate professor of child development and family studies at Purdue University. Also, it's "mentally gratifying" for parents to see the fruits of their labor—to know that all their child-rearing efforts have paid off—their kid has grown up, moved out, and begun to accomplish his or her goals.

Still, some parents may find the transition difficult to weather, says Amy Silverman, assistant professor of psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. Although empty-nest syndrome—which isn't listed as a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—is rarely synonymous with depression, "some parents experience a sense of loss, sadness, or may feel overwhelmed," she says. If these emotions persist or become extreme, it might be time to consider professional help, she adds.

Most experts nevertheless agree that the anticipation of a child's departure is far worse than the reality. That's why taking steps to prepare for the potentially stressful time is the best way to ensure things go smoothly, Silverman says: (1) Communicate with a child about issues that could arise—finances, for example, or keeping in touch—and create a game plan; (2) anticipate a little extra difficulty if stressful events like retirement, menopause, and caring for a sick parent are happening simultaneously; (3) seek support from friends who've been through it before, or from your spouse; and, she says, (4) focus on interests or goals to pursue in newfound free time. Heck, getting a dog might even do the trick.

Survey: What do you think?

When a child leaves the family home for good, is the experience for parents overall...

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