Empty nest parents are at risk for addiction. Learn how to recognize the signs of declining mental health and the start of a substance use disorder.
It can be tough for parents when a child leaves home. Mothers and fathers may find themselves tearful, grieving the start of a long process of letting go. Some parents may experience existential angst. These experiences describe a phenomenon called “empty nest syndrome.” As family dynamics change, lonesomeness and domestic doldrums may settle in. When coupled with feelings of depression and anxiety, this extra “me time” can lead some parents to substance abuse and addiction.
What Is Empty Nest Syndrome?
Empty nest syndrome refers to feelings of sadness, boredom, loneliness and grief that parents may experience when their adult children leave home. It is a common parental response. It can occur when children leave home for the first time, or when they leave again after having moved back in for some time. Parents may feel torn as they want to support their children’s growing independence but find it difficult to let go. This change can be especially challenging for parents who feel parenting is one of the biggest parts of their personal identity.
Empty nest syndrome is a life transition, not a clinical diagnosis. However, over time, worsening symptoms can turn into clinical depression, anxiety and addiction. It is important to recognize the risks and symptoms of empty nest syndrome. Doing so can help prevent it from occurring or turning into a diagnosable mental health condition.
Risk Factors and Symptoms of Empty Nest Syndrome
There are several risk factors associated with developing empty nest syndrome. These risks include:
- Strong parental identity. Mothers identify as the primary caretakers of their children in most American families. As such, more mothers experience empty nest syndrome than fathers. However, regardless of gender, parents whose identities largely revolve around parenting are most at risk of developing empty nest syndrome.
- Feelings of losing control over childrens’ lives. Mothers and fathers may experience empty nest syndrome differently. Mothers tend to feel more sadness. Fathers tend to feel a greater sense of loss of control over their children’s lives. All the same, parents who long for control and influence over their children are at greater risk.
- Anxiety, concern and worry over their child’s well-being. Anxiety, concern and worry over a child’s well-being are universal traits of parenting. Women face higher rates of anxiety than men. Accordingly, mothers are especially prone to these feelings, putting them at a higher risk of empty nest syndrome.
- Younger parents. Younger parents may have a more peer-like relationship with their children, given their closeness in age. They also may have to devote more time to parenting, as they often have fewer resources to hire help. Consequently, younger parents are more at risk of empty nest syndrome.
- Lack of a support system. Parents who are homemakers, single parents and those with fewer children tend to invest more time into caring for their children. As a result, they are more likely to lack the support system of family and friends needed in times of mental health decline and crisis.
As mentioned, early symptoms of empty nest syndrome include feeling bored or down. Other initial symptoms include:
When risk factors and poor coping skills are present, these challenging emotions can turn into mental health diagnoses, such as:
- Depression: Depression is defined as having a persistently low mood or lack of motivation for most of the day for two weeks or longer. Additional symptoms of depression include sleep disturbances, loss of interest in daily activities, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, decreased energy, decreased ability to concentrate, appetite or weight changes, slowing of speech and movements and suicidal thoughts or behaviors.
- Anxiety: Anxiety comes in many different forms, but generally is defined as excessive fear or worry. It causes immense distress and significantly affects a person’s life.
- Substance use disorder: Substance use disorder encompasses substance abuse and addiction. Addiction develops once a person’s drug or alcohol use becomes detrimental to their physical and psychological wellness.
The Empty Nest Syndrome and Substance Use Disorder
A substance use disorder can develop when empty nest parents turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate. To help cope with their child’s departure, they may start using substances for the first time or begin using them more heavily. The risks of developing boredom and addiction are even greater when other mental health conditions or challenging life transitions are present, such as:
- Looking to fill an emotional and physical void: When adult children leave home, emotional and physical voids in the lives of their parents may surface. Poor mental and physical health, lack of a strong partnership or absence of an outside support system may be brought to light. Substance use disorder can ensue out of this boredom, discontent and emotional or physical pain.
- Coping with other midlife changes: Empty nest syndrome can coincide with other major midlife challenges, such as hormonal shifts for men and women, declining physical health, regret, divorce, debt, retirement and loss of a parent. Attempting to grapple with these adversities with poor coping skills can lead to substance abuse and addiction.
It is important to address co-occurring mental health conditions to manage substance use disorder and empty nest syndrome effectively. Otherwise, parental mental health will only continue to decline once empty nest syndrome sets in.
Recognizing Unhealthy Patterns
Self-awareness of how you are doing once your children leave home is invaluable. Support from others can also go a long way. A spouse is often the first to notice unhealthy changes in their partner’s mental health. In addition, other members of a parent’s support system, such as friends and family, can help prevent and manage empty nest syndrome. Early intervention is vital. Concern and support from friends and family can make all the difference.
How to Avoid Empty Nest Syndrome
Recommendations for parents for preventing empty nest syndrome include:
- Be proactive. Recognize that the time for adult children to leave home is coming. Talk with others about how you are feeling. Don’t be afraid to ask for help during this transition.
- Explore other interests. When children leave home, it can be a great time to rediscover old hobbies or explore new ones you always wanted to try. Joining an exercise club, pursuing your education, making a career change or setting aside time to travel are great ways to cope.
- Consider adopting a pet. If you do not already have a pet, consider getting one. For some, the right pet can help provide the companionship and an outlet needed for avoiding empty nest syndrome.
- Find support. Join a support group you can relate to. Talk with old or new friends who are also experiencing empty nest syndrome. Stay in touch with your child. Doing so can make a world of difference in your ability to cope and remind you that you’re not alone.
- Recognize unhealthy patterns. One of the best ways to notice unhealthy patterns is to be mindful of them. Notice how your life transition is felt in your body, mind and emotions. Do so consciously, without judgment and with compassion for yourself.
Getting Help with Empty Nest Syndrome
If you or a loved one struggle with empty nest syndrome and co-occurring addiction, The Recovery Village can help. Best treatment results are achieved when underlying mental health conditions and co-occurring substance use disorders are treated together. You can receive comprehensive treatment from one of several facilities located throughout the nation. To learn more about empty nest syndrome and substance use disorder treatment programs, call The Recovery Village to speak with a representative today.
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Mayo Clinic. “Empty nest syndrome: Tips for coping.” Healthy Lifestyle: Adult Health, April 13, 2018. Accessed July 30, 2019.
Shakya, Dhana Ratna. “Empty Nest Syndrome – An Obstacle for Alcohol Abstinence.” Journal of Nepal Health Research Council, April 2009. Accessed July 30, 2019.
Wang, Guojun; et al. “Loneliness and depression among rural empty-nest elderly adults in Liuyang, China: a cross-sectional study.” BMJ Open, October 6, 2017. Accessed July 30, 2019.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.