Parents feeling down after their young-adult children have gone off to college might wonder if they are out of step when they see online videos depicting newly minted empty nesters dancing and celebrating their child-free lives. But the truth is that the first few weeks and months after children leave the house can be upsetting for many parents, said Dr. David Nathan, licensed psychologist and eastern region lead for Allina Health.
Nathan, who practices out of Allina’s Highland Park clinic in St. Paul, says that the departure of a young-adult child is often a significant trauma for parents, many of whom never expected the transition would be that hard.
“Just like when a loved one dies or when someone breaks up with us, having our children leave home is a very big deal to 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 hard — and it’s important to acknowledge the feelings that transition raises in our bodies and minds.”
Nathan treats people of all ages and genders, though he said that about 70 to 80% of his patient population is male. He’s found that men experience empty-nest syndrome as often as women, but are less likely to recognize its symptoms in themselves or acknowledge them in other males.
“I think our society does not do a really good job of telling guys it is OK to talk about these transitions or how they make them feel,” he said. “Too often, a lot of guys, especially older guys, are reluctant to talk about it openly or admit their feelings.” In fact, Nathan said, many of the men he treats for empty-nest syndrome come in at someone else’s urging: “Often a guy gets referred to me because his wife, girlfriend or boss says, ‘You need to talk to somebody.’”
Recently, Nathan and I discussed the mental health toll of the empty-nest experience and ways he helps his patients adjust to this new stage of life. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
MinnPost: When did you begin 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 on in my career. It really is a core difficulty, a common struggle for many parents. If people have children they are probably going to experience this feeling. In some cases, kids do continue to live with their parents as they get 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 parent than it is for the kid.
MP: How would you define empty-nest syndrome?
DN: There is not a DSM diagnosis for empty-nest syndrome. Instead, someone might be diagnosed with anxiety or depression or adjustment disorder. The underlying issue that kicks these symptoms off is the fact that a child is no longer in the 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 relationship with our children. By the time a young person is in their late teens and early 20s, they are ready to start their own life. They are raring to go. They feel held back by their parents. This is hard for many parents. It is like breaking up with someone, like ending a relationship.
MP: What kind of symptoms do your patients experience when their children leave home?
DN: One of the ways I look at mental health is when something crummy happens to us there are several ways for the mind to respond. One way is internalizing symptoms like anxiety or depression, keeping things inside our mind and having obsessions about certain topics. A second way is externalized symptoms. These are symptoms where someone shows their feelings indirectly but in a more outward manner. They might be irritable, slam objects or break things. They might even get into fights. The third way is somatic symptoms, or experiencing loss in your body like bad headaches, stomachaches or rashes.
MP: How do you help patients make the connections between these symptoms and the big life changes they are experiencing?
DN: If someone comes to see me and they say they are feeling down or antsy or are having difficulties with anger, as a psychologist, I wonder what is the core issue that is contributing to them feeling that way? If I learn that they have recently had a child leave the home, I can help them understand that this is a different kind of loss, and despite what they’ve heard from others or think for themselves, that loss can be significant.
Often, people don’t connect their empty nest with their symptoms. It depends on people’s understanding of how they respond to stress and change. With a lot of people I can point things out to them and say, “It is really difficult when your child leaves. You miss your kids. Our kids are supposed to leave, but it still makes sense that you are sad.” Besides simply missing having their child in the house, parents might also just worry about their kid, like, “Are they going to be OK without us nearby? What if something happens to them?”
I explain that it is OK to have those kinds of emotions. It is healthy for us to be aware of all of those feelings we are having and then think about ways to address them.
MP: Compared to when I was in college, parents are now so much more connected to their kids. They can text and FaceTime every day if they want to. Does that connectedness help with empty-nest syndrome?
DN: I think one of the cool things about living in 2023 is we have all this incredible technology. We can FaceTime with people. We can video chat with people on the computer, but it is really not the same. Even if you talk for a 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-fed assumptions about the “liberation” of the empty nest make people who are actually feeling sad about this transition feel ashamed of their emotions?
DN: It can take some time for us to come up with new patterns and develop a way of dealing with loss and adjusting to change that’s happening. That’s normal. If you feel sad and unmoored after your child leaves the home, it’s not like you have done something wrong or you are weak. It is typical. It is the natural response.
First, I want to make sure that people understand that it is OK and normal and appropriate to be sad, to recognize that this thing happened and you are feeling sad about it. Recognizing the source of what’s making us feel something is important.
MP: How do you suggest parents cope with these upsetting feelings?
DN: Everyone is a little bit different. It might be they have the kind of relationship with their kid where they can schedule a regular call to check in. But you should ask your child ahead of time if it is OK to do that.
I also think it is important for people to make time to do things for themselves that will help them in the healing process. Be patient with yourself. Think about this experience like you were in a car accident: You’d be sore for a while and it would take time to get better. Your insides and your outsides both can be injured. If your body was really jostled in an accident, it is going to take a while for everything to heal. Same for your mental health.
MP: Do you ever talk to people who worry that their experience isn’t as amazing as the empty-nest experiences they see on Instagram or TikTok?
DN: I hear that all the time. I think social media is so unhelpful. It is all about getting clicks, not about reality. It can actually make people feel more isolated and depressed. All of that stuff is about making money or getting attention. It is not about being accurate or true or even helpful.
If you are feeling bad or crummy about what’s going on in your life, don’t go on Instagram. It is not an accurate depiction of the typical person’s life. It is absolutely normal to have mixed feelings about your child leaving the house. Being an empty nester is not this mega-happy, blissful Disney version of “The Little Mermaid.” That’s really far from reality, which can sometimes feel more like the Hans Christian Andersen version.
Recognize that kids leaving is a very big transition. I’ve brought up the metaphor of when someone dies or someone breaks up with you. Our kids leaving is just as big.
MP: Do you have personal experience with empty-nest syndrome?
DN: I have kids, but they aren’t old enough to leave yet. Having kids was a very, very, very big deal. It probably is not fair to say that having a child leave for college is as big a deal as when child is born, but it is still a very big deal and we need to recognize that.
MP: What about people who don’t feel that sad when their kid leaves? Has anyone ever told you they feel guilty, like they should be more mournful about the situation?
DN: Sometimes people feel that way and they tell me they thought they should feel bad about the transition and they didn’t. I just say that there is no right way to feel about 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 tell us when something is going on in our body that we should be aware of before everything breaks down.
I think that in the U.S., a lot of guys, a lot of people in general, work so hard that even when we are 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 are feeling crummy, what are some things that can help you feel less crummy?”
We can always can cover up our dashboard and keep driving. But we won’t know when we need to put gas in the car or when we are going too fast or when the check engine light comes on. Eventually we have to look at the dashboard. We need to check in from time to time with our feelings and see if we need help.