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Empty Nest Syndrome

Most people will have heard of the term empty nest syndrome (ENS). There is a misconception that this happens when the youngest child leaves home but in fact, it can happen when any child leaves home to go to university, to travel or for work.

It is unfortunate that this significant step often coincides with the peri/menopause stage of a mother’s life. That said, ENS is not restricted to mothers. Parents going through this period often experience feelings of loss or lack of purpose and their relationships with others can also be affected.

A study of 147 mothers and 114 fathers, with a child moving onto higher education, found that women with the primary carer role and who largely stayed home, had taken steps to prepare themselves for the departure and, in fact, were looking forward to hobbies they could reignite, whereas the fathers often failed to even discuss the topic thus, when the event occurred, the men were less prepared and later exhibited regrets over lost opportunities.

ENS is not currently recognised as a diagnosed psychiatric disorder, rather, it is viewed as a transitional life period with various biological, social and cognitive changes that can explain the symptoms often seen during ENS:

  1. Loss of purpose

  2. Frustration over lack of control

  3. Emotional distress

  4. Marital stress

  5. Anxiety about your children

Some even believe that ENS may be a myth; the argument being the onset of depression which can be caused by the hormonal changes of peri/menopause are more likely to be the cause for the feelings associated with ENS.

Myth or truth, unfortunately, some parents are more susceptible than others. Research suggests that people who consider change as stressful rather than challenging or refreshing, those who are in unstable or unsatisfactory relationships and those who worry their children are not ready to take on adult responsibilities tend to experience more grief.

ENS can have consequences on the parents’ relationship too. However, ENS is not always as bad as it is made out to be. It is possible, following the ‘grieving’ stage, for couples to reconnect and rediscover their relationship and the pleasure they once had from each other’s company. These tips may be helpful:

  1. Do the things you have always wanted to do but have been unable to do due to childcare / finances

  2. Think of an activity you used to enjoy in the early days of your relationship

  3. Have more date nights, and even date days!

  4. And above all else, communicate, effectively

In 2018, 27.9% of the 18-year-old population in England went off to university along with 26.3% in Wales. This means that anyone who may be struggling with ENS is not alone. There are support groups available from organisations such as Relate.

Some useful resources:


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