Dr Rima Mukherji spoke to Team Bonobology about the empty nest syndrome and how to cope with it
Dr. Rima Mukherji MBBS, DPM, MRCPsych (London) , After gaining 7 years of experience in the UK, Dr. Mukherji set up the renowned Crystal Minds, a mental wellness centre (with a multidisciplinary team offering a wide range of psychiatric and psychological services for all age groups) in Kolkata.
How to cope when your children leave home and you are left with an empty nest?
Once the children grow up and move out of the home, parents have mixed feelings. While they’re happy that their child has grown up and moved on, the void left behind is painful and leaves them feeling empty and sad. This is called the empty nest syndrome. It is a normal part of life. In time, parents learn to cope and move on happily, waiting for the precious moments when their children come visiting over the holidays.
More often than not, it is women who are affected most by it and for whom the condition may get severe. The thought that their child has gone leaves them with a deep sense of loss and depression. This happens in cases where the mother has wrapped her identity entirely around her child. She might be over invested in the child and has never tried to do anything for herself or have a life of her own. Sometimes the child is the only confidante that a woman has had all her life, and his/her departure is devastating for her.
Also, as men are usually the breadwinners and are at work, they are not involved in the day-to-day raising of the children, hence their lives do not get as affected. Another aspect is that, by and large, men are not as expressive as women, and may be internalising their grief, as opposed to women who find it easier to share their thoughts and pain.
Bad marriages aggravate this syndrome. When the husband and wife do not have much in common, it is the child that keeps them tied together. With the child gone, they have nothing to divert them and they have to acknowledge and notice the other more. Hence, the level of marital discord that one can have even at this stage, when the couple is fifty plus, is quite high. Often it is their grownup children who bring the parents to counsellors for marital counselling.
Related reading: Divorce at 50
Gone for ever
Today many parents know that due to lack of opportunity in their own cities, their children are never going to be able to move back home. Earlier, the joint family system provided a warm blanket of companionship for everyone in the family. So if one member left, there were many other family members around still. Today when the child leaves, his bedroom lies vacant, his books and favourite meals remain a painful reminder of the fact that they left and will never return, for good. Today the going away is permanent and that has a severe impact on the parents.
However, many parents do manage to make the most of this trying time. All couples go through a process where they feel empty and sad. That’s natural. But they start a new chapter of their lives then. They start doing things together; socialising together; exercising at the gymnasium, movies, walks, holidays, common areas where both are interested. The new bonding and time shared is a pleasant new experience and also helps them cope with the emptiness and moving on. Sometimes women form a happy gang of girl friends and go out in evenings or for holidays.
Related reading: 10 things to do with your girl gang today!
Focusing on friends is another thing that women do to cope. With their spouse or friends or with both, or by themselves; many couples decide to have the best time of their life. With most of their responsibilities out of their way, they can give themselves more importance, enjoy life, take up dance or music lessons, travel, write, pursue photography, theatre… they decide that they have to keep themselves happy and that’s a mature way to look at it!
The following tips can guide all couples regarding how to cope when the children move out:
1. Be prepared
Sometimes, the parents, specially the mothers, are unable to cope and end up severely depressed and in need of counselling. There are many ways to handle the empty nest syndrome, but the best way is to start years before the children actually leave, which is when they’re just 14-15 years old. Children leaving is not a sudden thing that happens out of the blue. Everyone knows that they have to leave ‘one day’ and must remember that.
Children leaving is not a sudden thing that happens out of the blue. Everyone knows that they have to leave ‘one day’ and must remember that.
2. Children must sleep in their own rooms
There are a surprisingly large number of families where the children sleep in the parents’ room even when they have their own rooms. This is an unhealthy practice and almost akin to the umbilical cord being tied right back! This carries on till they actually leave the city for higher studies or work, but even then on return they park themselves in the parents’ room. The parents absolutely must teach the children to sleep on their own beds, in their own rooms when they are young.
3. Steer clear of the new age helicopter parenting/over parenting
Even from the age of five, children have the ability to care for their toys and books in little ways. By the time they are eight to ten years old, they are capable of managing their toys, rooms, homework, preparing the school bag for next day, etc. And they must be allowed to stay independent. Over parenting and micro managing them makes them dependent and leaves the parent with a misplaced sense of validation which will take a huge hit when the child grows up and moves out.
4. Do things that you enjoy doing
Start doing things that you always wanted to but couldn’t due to responsibilities of home and family. There are so many opportunities; especially in today’s world, there is such a lot to do, right from home! One can occupy oneself from morning to night.
Related reading: After our children left, we learnt to communicate all over again
5. Address the fear
Another thing that’s adding to the parents’ stress is when the children move out of not just the home but also out of the country. Since they tended to every tiny need of their precious prince/princess, their kids are now devoid of life skills and in a foreign country and culture. The parents are worried about how the children will cope. Also, added to that these days we notice parents also worry about their child’s safety from terrorist attacks. Their general fear regarding their child’s safety amplifies manifold.
In case it is too difficult for you to manage your grief, share your feelings with spouse/friends/family. Talking about the problems out loud is helpful. If nothing works, seek professional counselling. That will definitely help you cope with the pain.