Avoid Empty Nest Addiction

MastHead Outline
August 24, 2019

Parents of adult children will one day experience the day when all of their children move on from their home and create their own lives. While this is a momentous milestone for both parents and their children, it can also be a difficult transition for some parents. Though “empty nest syndrome” is not an official diagnosis, it’s a common phenomenon that can lead some parents to feel depressed, isolated, and empty. Since addiction and mental health often go hand-in-hand, those who are struggling with these changes can turn to substance use to cope with their feelings. If you find yourself worrying about how you will one day handle your children fleeing the nest, it’s important to read about the dangers of empty nest addiction and how prevalent it is among parents everywhere.

Empty Nest Syndrome

This syndrome isn’t an actual clinical diagnosis, but it has been used casually among psychologists and psychotherapists since the 1970s when it was first researched, though its origins date back to 1914. The feelings associated with this syndrome have been known to most significantly impact stay-at-home and single mothers, but are not limited to these circumstances. Most parents are proud they were able to raise independent and successful children who are ready to march out into life, but at the same time, the primary focus of their lives is now leaving, making room for a lot of extra time alone.

Raising a child for almost two decades has filled your home with laughter, tears, and memories that will last a lifetime. The bond between parents and children is irreplaceable, but at some point, parents are required to see their children grow up and live on their own. Whether they are off to college or are moving into their own space to start their own family, this will bring about a considerable change in your household. Thinking back to all those times you couldn’t wait for them to move out to get some peace suddenly come rushing into your memory and can leave you feeling upset and uncertain. While much of this is worry about how they will do on their own, whether they will be safe, and have enough to eat, another part of the sudden sadness is because the home they grew up in will no longer be filled with the same kind of life and activity it once was.

Substance Use and Empty Nests

When isolation creeps in, some parents find themselves searching for something to soothe these feelings that are often accompanied by anxiety and sadness. Parents find themselves with a lack of things to do since there is no more tending to children and an empty chair at the dinner table. These constant reminders can be particularly haunting for retired parents or those who work from home. For some, not seeing their children every day once they’ve left can be difficult to accept , leading them to search for something to dull their pain. Some may grab a bottle of wine, but others may have prescription medication available to them that can quickly soothe their woes, but is dangerously addictive. These methods of dealing with pain come with a high risk of developing substance use disorder if not recognized and dealt with in early stages.

A segment of the parent population that may experience this syndrome differently than most are those who have strained relationships with their children who have left home. Regardless of the specifics of the animosity between parent and child, these situations can instill feelings of regret, guilt, and emotional hardship. Parents often feel they are about to lose their last lifeline to remedy the relationship now that they are no longer under the same roof. These people may also go through the grieving process during their empty nest experience, making them more susceptible to substance use to escape their reality.

Self-medication isn’t unique to empty nest syndrome; it’s a common coping mechanism for people with mental health issues like depression, but also those with marital problems, or life stressors. This has caused a recent resurgence of research about empty nest syndrome, looking to classify it more specifically as it aligns mostly with other common mental health illnesses. By being able to identify that someone with these empty nest feelings is actually suffering from generalized anxiety and depression, doctors are better able to treat patients before they are left to their own devices, possibly involving the misuse of substances.

Empty Nests in 2019

In the past, many women were urged to stay at home with their children, causing them to fall into the pits of empty-nest feelings once their children left home. Much of this was due to women not having a sense of individuality or purpose outside of housekeeping and taking care of their children. Luckily, staying at home to parent is much more of an active choice for both men and women today, changing the outlook of how we see empty nest syndrome historically. With more mothers in the workforce, and traditional gender roles falling to the wayside, parenting has evolved to create more balanced mothers and fathers in a family structure.

Unlike just 30 years ago, parents today have access to the internet and smartphones, making it easier than ever to stay in touch with their children anywhere around the globe. Some studies even report that the empty nest phase can also strengthen relationships between parents and children while both parties gain more satisfaction from their own lives, creating a more peer-like relationship. Even the American Psychological Association has been able to debunk some old myths surrounding the syndrome, stating that, unlike previously thought, fathers are actually impacted more than mothers in some cases. They also believe that their research shows that many empty nesters are finding new hobbies and passions to fill their time and are leading healthier and happier lives because of it, thus indirectly improving their relationships with their children, which correlates with the data found in other studies.

Tips for Overcoming Empty Nest Syndrome

  • Travel: Get out of town! Go see some new places, make some new friends, and create some memories to share with your children.
  • Make plans: Set aside dates to visit with your children. It will give you something to look forward to and help keep you in touch.
  • Mend ties: If your relationship with your children has previously been strained, it can be impactful to reach out once they’ve left, matured, and see life from a new perspective.
  • Start a new hobby: With all this time to yourself, you can learn a new language, pick up yoga, or attend events you never had time for previously.
  • Practice self-care: Parenting can run you ragged without even noticing. It’s never too late to get in shape, pamper yourself, or go for a new look.
  • Consider downsizing: Moving is a big step, but if you feel you have “too much house” around you, it might be a smart choice.
  • Rekindle your love life: Married or not, it’s time to ramp up the romance and enjoy some time alone with your significant other. If you’re single, don’t be afraid to put yourself out there!
  • Redecorate: If moving isn’t in your plans, spruce up the house and make those changes you’ve always envisioned.
  • Talk: Even if you’re handling things just fine, don’t be afraid to reach out to a therapist to discuss this new phase of life.
  • Socialize: New and old friends can revitalize your day-to-day and remove you from any isolation.

Interestingly, many empty nests are now being refilled with millennial children who are opting to live back at home due to cost-of-living and wage disparity in many places around the US, along with delaying marriage, student debt, and pursuing higher education.

If you think you may be dealing with empty nest addiction, you don’t have to go it alone. With the help of medical professionals, there are discreet, effective, and proven methods to deal with both the psychological aspects of your feelings as well as the substance use you may be exhibiting. There is hope and so much more to live for, especially for your children and their future children too.