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Empty Nesters
IconSociologists popularized the term "empty nest syndrome" in the 1970s. The media, of course, helped make its existence part of conventional wisdom. Everybody gets empty nest syndrome. But more recently, a number of psychologists who are doing research have begun taking a more nuanced look at this transition, some of them because they were not experiencing the distress that the popular literature says is "typical" when children leave home. Truth is - it's not typical.

Most people go through a transition and come out of it just fine, no matter what the transition is... menopause, retirement, even the death of somebody important. And, what is clear, most people (perhaps after some period of time of going "whoa, my routine is off here") have increased satisfaction, improved relationships, and less stress. Most parents enjoy a sense of greater freedom, a reconnection with their spouses, and more time to pursue their goals and interests once their kids leave home because most parents sacrifice. They put their interests aside to take care of family.

One of the most important factors in a parental concern and inability to slide into the next chapter of life is when the kids screw up. When the kids leave and do well, most parents do fine. When the kids leave and screw up, parents' ability to enjoy their empty nest is messed with and they spend a lot of their time suffering and rescuing, perhaps, yet again.

There are typical qualities which lead some people to make a transition better or less well. If you're a person for whom change is stressful period, then change is going to be stressful. A lot of people look at change as challenging, refreshing or a little "nervous-making," but pretty exciting. Some people have to have rigorous constancy to feel okay. So, for them, change is very stressful -- any change is stressful. Moving is stressful. So kids' leaving is stressful. That's not empty nest syndrome. That's someone with anxiety disorder from ground zero.

If a person's marriage is unstable, unsatisfactory and on the verge of imploding, then when the kids leave home, the buffer (i.e., the other thing to pay attention to) is gone and that's upsetting. People who have few friends, few interests, few hobbies, few dreams and put all their focus on their kids obviously are going to have a tough time when the kids leave. For some people who make their whole identity being somebody's mother and usually ignore their husbands, friends and other activities, while solely focusing on being the CIA over their kids will discover a big hole when the kids leave.

For most people, the transition is really comforting and comfortable and pretty exciting...in which they establish a new kind of relationship with their kids, where they're mentors and not supreme deities. It's a time where husband and wife can frolic and go away, and their schedules are their own. People who have had dreams and desires like skydiving (I remember one lady mentioned that)...can go back to start doing some of those wacky things. I would say, in general, it is atypical to greatly suffer. Most people consider the kids moving out be a normal, healthy event -- even a positive one. So it's hard to get sympathy. And, oftentimes, we have a doubling or quadrupling up: kids leave, you're also retiring or somebody's going through menopause, death or divorce...wow. So it's not so much even that the kids are leaving, it's just we have a million things happening at one time, and that's really upsetting. The best thing to do in these predicaments is to get some help. If you're at the end of your tether, get some help.

Consider volunteer work, join a hobby group, network with friends, find some employment opportunities; set achievable goals. The empty nest can be just what it says: a dreadful event filled with emptiness and boredom, or an exciting time with new beginnings, renewing old friendships, hobbies, interests, creating new directions for a creative life. It's your choice.

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