UAE: 'Empty nest syndrome' can trigger grieving process in parents, warn leading psychologists

The sense of ‘losing’ a child may also be compounded by other life events taking place at the same time such as retirement, divorce or menopause

File photo
File photo

Ismail Sebugwaawo

Published: Thu 29 Sep 2022, 12:58 PM

Last updated: Thu 29 Sep 2022, 2:02 PM

Leaving home to join university or college for the first time marks an exciting new chapter in the lives of many young people – but for their parents, the emotional turmoil can be similar to grief, according to two leading psychologists from the Priory Wellbeing Centre in Dubai.

“It is common at this time of transition for parents to feel a roller coaster of conflicting emotions, including guilt, sorrow, confusion, loneliness, excitement and pride. They can experience pleasure that their child is beginning their adult life, but also a sense of panic that they are no longer in the family home under their direct guidance and supervision", says Dr Shweta Misra, a Clinical Psychologist from the Centre.

This period of adjustment is commonly called ‘empty nest syndrome’, but this is a catch-all term which tends to be used for a very wide-range of emotional reactions. At its worst, the impact on parents can be far-reaching, to the extent that it triggers the grieving process because of the sense of ‘losing’ a child. Denial, anger, bargaining, and acceptance are the common stages of grief and in some, this can lead to serious mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.”

According to research, parents who are more susceptible to empty nest syndrome are those who rely on their parental role for their own self-identity and sense of worth and purpose, and who view their child as a dependent. It can also be compounded by other life events which may be taking place at the same time such as retirement, divorce or the menopause.

Full-time parents – stay at home mothers or fathers – can also be particularly vulnerable. Fathers can also be even less prepared for this emotional transition and may experience increased feelings of guilt over lost opportunities to be involved in their child’s life before they leave home.

However, according to Dr Catherine Musa, a Clinical Psychologist and Psychotherapist also at the Priory Wellbeing Centre in Dubai, parents may react to their child’s departure in a positive way and embrace defining their new role.

Dr Catherine Musa
Dr Catherine Musa

“While it is easy to focus on the negative emotional aspects, parents can also feel reinvigorated and take this opportunity to identify new roles and interests for the next chapter in their life. They understand that parenthood is just one piece of their lifetime identity.

Without the numerous obligations of caring for and raising another human being, a parent can use this new chapter to redefine who they are, dedicate new energy to their careers or areas of interests and, in some cases, renew the marital relationship. Parents can also enjoy building a more mature bond with their adult children that can be deeply satisfying to everyone involved.”

Dr Misra recommends the following steps to help both parents and children successfully navigate this next stage in their lives:

  • Talk about the changes to come and help prepare your child to leave the ‘nest’. Equip them with the basic skills and autonomy they will need to survive and thrive on their own, especially if in a foreign country.
  • Reassure yourself and your child. Let your child know that their home base will always be with you and will not change, even if you are miles apart.
  • Acknowledge and validate your child’s feelings of emotional stress and turmoil at leaving home. Offer constant encouragement and reassurance for this next chapter in their lives.
  • Create a family social media group to help stay in contact. Schedule a set day/time every week to catch-up over phone/text and be prepared to provide comfort, encouragement and emotional support if needed.

Finally, Dr Musa is keen to emphasise how parents need to let go of any feelings of guilt around their new sense of ‘freedom’ and instead embrace the huge achievement of seeing their child ‘grown and flown’.

“Any feelings of guilt should be replaced with joy and pride at having reached the ultimate goal of parenting – to make our children happy and independent individuals.”

Dr Musa provides the following recommendations to help parents embark on this next chapter:

  • Discuss your grief with your partner, friends, family and, if needed, seek professional support. Remember that while your ‘nest’ may be empty, your life can still be full.
  • Structure your day, especially in the early days, as this will stop you from feeling purposeless.
  • Pursue interests and take up hobbies that you’ve never had time to before. Embrace your newly-found ‘me time’.
  • Reconnect with your partner and spend more quality time together. Use this space and time to go on dates and reignite the romance in your relationship; this is the ideal time to create one that is mutually supportive and compassionate.
  • Invest in friendships. Many parents have neglected social relationships for years due to family constraints, so now is the perfect time to see friends – which is also a healthy distraction and can alleviate feelings of loneliness.
  • Practice self-care. Set aside time to take care of yourself; this could mean going for a run, cooking a meal, taking a relaxing bath. Everyone has a preferred self-care ritual, so find what works for you.
  • Set future goals. Adopting a forward-looking mindset can alleviate feelings of grief, ignite motivation and promote a healthy sense of perspective. Take up a new hobby, interest or even career – use this time to explore the different facets of your identify.

Dr Misra adds: “There is no fixed way of feeling when your child leaves, and parents do not need to become a new person overnight. They should start by setting small, manageable goals until new habits begin to form.

These will then take the place of previous routines that centred on caring for their child. While it can take time and patience to adapt to an ‘empty nest’, it’s also a time which can present many new and exciting opportunities.”


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