Empty Nest Syndrome Symptoms Getting You Down? How to Cope as Kids Become More Independent

As children grow older, early empty nest syndrome symptoms begin to appear.

SuperHero Kid
© Can Stock Photo Inc. / yarruta

I haven’t been myself this past week. I’ve been irritable, lethargic, but mostly sad.

My older daughter celebrated another birthday. While I am so proud of how she has overcome challenges big and small and appreciative of all she has taught me, her growing independence is still hard to face. I’m sad she’ll soon be leaving for her own endeavors without us.

And, I know I’m having a hard time losing control.

Losing our hold on our kids

Having control over my daughter’s life gives me comfort. When she was a baby, I could strap her to my body and take her with me wherever I go.

parental fear
(c) LifeJunctions.com / Stacy S. Kim

I could keep her safe, and that gave me comfort.

Of course, I know that good parenting requires parents to take down the guardrails and scaffolding that allows our children to stand alone and grow. If I don’t loosen my grip, how will she learn to self-govern, assert herself, care for herself, and choose healthy relationships when I’m not there? If she doesn’t have the opportunity to make mistakes, how will she learn to be accountable? As painful as it was, she needed to feel hurt and experience hardship to develop the confidence and hope to overcome challenges.

What comforts me is knowing that I am not alone. While mothers readily share successes or complaints about their offspring, most don’t share their grief in normal conversation. Over the years, however, clients have shared their struggles. I got to learn from them how the hardest decisions parents make involve discerning whether to step in to help their child or to take a backseat.

But, I also discovered that what makes empty nest syndrome symptoms more challenging is losing a major part of your own identity–being a mother. Isn’t inevitable that the more a mother invests in their children, the more we lose when they grow independent of us?

How to overcome empty nest syndrome symptoms

Working with my clients, here is what I’ve learned that helps:

  1. Don’t deny the negative feelings—acknowledge them. It hurts when children push you away, and irritating when they roll their eyes at you. It is scary to think about the consequences of mistakes they might make and mortifying when they are rude. When they talk back or defy you, it’s infuriating; when they’re in pain, heart-wrenching. It is sad to realize they won’t miss you as much as you’ll miss them. But denying such feelings, pushing them aside, or trying to numb them, doesn’t make them go away. Even doing something as naming what you feel can help.
  2. Identify what is within your control and what isn’t; then focus on what you can do and release the rest. Throughout my daughters’ lives, I set bedtimes and nightly rituals, but I can’t make them fall asleep. For my younger daughter in art school, I can help provide space and materials, but I can’t force her to paint and draw. I can aim to be open, to ask and listen, but I can’t force them to tell me everything. Likewise, I can model the behavior I want to see.
  3. Similarly, as mothering duties diminish, nurture new roles. After acknowledging (mourning) our children’s independence, we have space for new opportunities. This can be daunting for those who are primary caregivers. But, transformations don’t happen overnight–and that’s a good thing. Using The Lighthouse Method, aim for that small glimmer of what you might like to try, then start with a tiny habit you can do now. For me, I secretly wanted to be a “published writer.” I long believed it only happens to the talented. Thankfully, however mentors and teachers taught me that writers write–and that is an activity within my control. Moreover, while I don’t have the power over a publication to accept my piece, I can pitch it to them. Rather than question my “talent,” I focused on progress. (Interested in hearing more? Check out my lucky break to be a guest on one of my favorite podcasts.)

Your turn. What is within your control that you might try today? How do you overcome empty nest syndrom symptoms?