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Do You Have Pandemic Empty-Nest Syndrome?

How parents can cope when kids leave home a second time

Empty nest kids going off to college
Terry Vine/Getty Images

Homemade bread and backyard chickens weren't the only trends to take off during the pandemic. Cohabitation between parents and young adult children skyrocketed, too, with the number of 18- to 29-year-olds living at home reaching levels not seen since the Great Depression, according to 2020 findings from the Pew Research Center.

But as colleges and workplaces across the country begin to reopen, many young adults who returned home in the last year are preparing to leave the nest once more. It's a change that can find parents grappling with feelings of loss and sadness — but experts say the transition to an empty nest doesn't need to be fraught a second time around. Here are their strategies to ease the adjustment.

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Prioritize trust and mutual communication

"Pandemic or not, we know that parents are going to worry about their children no matter what is going on in the world,” says Connecticut-based clinical psychologist Holly Schiff. She notes that parents facing an empty nest after months of pandemic cohabitation might struggle with coronavirus-specific concerns, like wondering whether their child is practicing social distancing and wearing a mask outside the home.

To combat pandemic-related worries, Schiff recommends parents first make an effort to trust that their young adult children are capable of taking responsibility for their own health and well-being. Next, consider setting up a dedicated time to check in with your child, whether that means a daily chat on the phone or a weekly Zoom call (just be sure that your child also agrees to the timing and frequency of these chats).

As for what not to do? “The biggest mistake I've seen parents make, and the thing you'd like to avoid, is leaning on your child for [emotional] support,” she says. “That can harm the parent-child relationship and may actually intensify empty-nest feelings.”

Instead, Schiff recommends that empty nesters look to strengthen relationships with friends and other loved ones and spend their free time focusing on hobbies and projects — like volunteer work, taking college classes, or training for a fitness goal — they may have put on the back burner while their children were at home.

Accept challenging feelings — and know when to ask for help

Natalie Caine, founder of Empty Nest Support Services, says she's seen a recent “wave” of parents seeking help with the readjustment to post-pandemic family life.

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Caine says one key for parents struggling to adjust to an empty nest is working through the deeper feelings their child's departure may evoke, like a sense of purposelessness or loss of identity. She also notes that it's not uncommon for empty nesters to have realizations that go beyond the parent-child relationship, like reevaluating their marriage or career.

Addressing challenging feelings through therapy, a support group or with a trusted religious leader can be helpful, she says. And don't forget the small stuff either: Something as simple as stocking meals in your freezer if you know you won't feel like cooking after a college drop-off can go a long way toward easing the initial transition.

"Grief is really what captures the mood of empty-nest syndrome,” says Victoria Kelly, a psychiatrist at the University of Toledo Medical Center and an assistant professor in the University of Toledo College of Medicine.

Kelly notes that the uncertainty of pandemic-era plans — for instance, waiting to hear whether or when your child's college will reopen — poses an extra challenge for parents who may not be able to adequately prepare for their child's departure as a result.

Kelly also notes that certain parents are at increased risk of experiencing difficulties when their children leave home, including women and primary caregivers, single parents, parents with pre-existing mental health conditions, and those who lack strong social support networks.

People who fall into one or more of these categories may want to seek out extra guidance or assistance as they face the transition to an empty nest, she says. While empty-nest syndrome itself is not a psychiatric diagnosis, Kelly says that parents with symptoms of depression and anxiety should not hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional for support.

Keep the upsides of an empty nest in mind

As painful as the transition to an empty nest can be, experts say that ultimately, it's a cause for celebration.

"There's definitely a bright side here,” says Jeffrey Arnett, a professor and senior research scholar in the psychology department at Clark University. “If your child or emerging adult is moving out of your household and pursuing their own path toward adult life, that's a good thing."

Arnett coined the term “emerging adulthood” to describe the life stage between ages 18 and 29, a time when young adults are transitioning from adolescence into full-fledged adulthood. The upsides to an empty nest go both ways, he says: Emerging adults are demonstrating that they are on track and eager to make an adult life for themselves, and parents are given the chance to focus — and even flourish — as individuals beyond the role of “mom” and “dad.”

Arnett's own college-aged daughter has been living at home since her school closed its doors last March. While her return required some initial readjustment for Arnett and his wife, he says that the chance to get close to his daughter in new ways during this unexpected period of cohabitation has been “precious.”

That's an outlook that the University of Toledo's Kelly endorses. She recommends that parents facing an upcoming departure focus on relishing their full nest while they still can.

"This is an opportunity to create memories,” she says. “Coming up with a way to focus on the positive is really important, so that when [children] do leave the nest for the second time, it's on a positive note."