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The Dangers of Empty Nest Syndrome

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The Dangers of Empty Nest Syndrome

Sep 21, 2023

As the kids leave home, parents often anticipate newfound freedom and excitement. However, the reality can sometimes be quite different. Family physician Kyle Bradford Jones, MD, delves into the phenomenon of empty nest syndrome. He discusses the emotional challenges, the return of the "boomerang generation," and navigating the evolving dynamics of caregiving roles within the family.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: The kids are all grown up, and leaving the house and you think you have the nest all to yourself, and it's going to be wonderful. You just might want to think again.

Dr. Kyle Bradford Jones, family physician at University of Utah is going to tell us a little bit about that next on The Scope.

So, most parents, when their kids are 18, are so excited, because yes, your kids are leaving, sad, but then it's like you get the house all to yourself after 18 years.

What is Empty Nest Syndrome?

Dr. Jones: Exactly. Exactly. You know, there's a thing called empty nest syndrome. So, as soon as the kids leave the house, there's a lot of grief and loneliness with the parents. And that's very common. So, like you mentioned, you get really excited and you think it's a big thing for you and the kids and it is, but it's a hard transition for many of the parents. The big thing about it is that, even though you may experience a little bit of grief or loneliness, or people think that's okay, it can turn into very severe depression, anxiety, loss of purpose, and things like that. And so, especially for single parents or those parents who have been stay-at-home parents, it can become a very significant problem for them.

Recognizing Signs of Severe Transition

Interviewer: At what point does it get, like, oh no, mom or dad or both might actually be sick?

Dr. Jones: You know, once you start to see kind of the more classic signs of depression. So, they're feeling a lot of guilt. They're having a hard time concentrating on things. They either can't sleep at all, or they're sleeping all the time and don't want to get out of bed in the morning. Things like that are things to watch for, to know that, hey, this is getting a little bit beyond just a difficult transition. This is becoming a bigger problem.

Interviewer: And so now is this something that the kids can pick up or is it something that you, as the parent, are kind of aware of yourself, aware that you are kind of getting kind of depressed?

Dr. Jones: You know, either or. Both people could certainly pick up on it. Either the kids or the parents.

Interviewer: Who's it, usually?

Dr. Jones: You know, probably the parents, I would think, to see that, "Hey, I'm having a really hard time with this." And it's okay to admit that. You know, there's obviously a little bit of a stigma against mental illness or difficult things like this, but it's important to get help when these things arise.

Seeking Help and Support

Interviewer: And what kind of help is there?

Dr. Jones: So, first of all, if you feel like it's getting bad, and getting to the point where you are starting to have severe depression or anxiety, I would definitely recommend seeing your physician because you may need therapy, there may be some medications that will help out, or even, sometimes, just acknowledging that it's a problem. And talking with someone can really help out. Other things you can do to try to stave it off and kind of deal with the transition a little bit better, are getting more involved in some of your hobbies. And sometimes parents will say, "Well, I don't know what I like. I've spent my life taking care of my kids."

Interviewer: "My hobbies are my kids."

Dr. Jones: Exactly. And so sometimes that's hard, but it also presents a great opportunity to explore yourself and your interests. You could go back to work. You could volunteer at different places to get that experience. But also just talking with people about the difficult transition that you may be experiencing can really help, especially if it's... if you're with a significant other or spouse, making sure that you're talking with each other about what's going on.

The Boomerang Generation

Interviewer: So now, what happens when the kids leave the house and it's all yay and fun, and then college ends and they come back?

Dr. Jones: Yeah. Lately, there's been what's called the Boomerang generation.

Interviewer: Okay. So, there's a name for it? There's a term?

Dr. Jones: Exactly. So, they'll leave for college, and then either due to economic stresses or social issues, they end up coming back home. And as of 2008, about a third of kids or young adults, aged 18 to 34 were living with their parents.
And so sometimes, you then have to transition back, almost. But at the same time, you do not necessarily... need to be as involved as the parent, as when they were a child or an adolescent. And so that can also cause difficulty with the transition. But kind of doing the same things, making sure you're talking about it, especially with your young adult child who's come back, so that you can be open with them and understand your role and what you need from each other.

Cultural Perspectives on Family Living Arrangements

Interviewer: Now, I know in different cultures that with a lot of families, the kid never leaves.

Dr. Jones: Yeah.

Interviewer: They kind of just stay with the mom and dad until the mom and dad or both just pass away.

Dr. Jones: Sure.

Interviewer: And that's normal. That's how it is in their culture.

Dr. Jones: Sure.

Interviewer: Is there some sort of empty nest syndrome in that, like, not empty nest, but maybe full nest syndrome?

Dr. Jones: You know there certainly could be. As the parent gets older and transitions from being the caretaker to needing the caretaker, that can be very difficult. And you can experience the same symptoms with that. It's basically a change in role, a change in transition that can cause a lot of these problems.

Interviewer: Any other thoughts you have?

Dr. Jones: Just to keep an eye on this and just be aware of it because if it becomes a significant problem, it is important to seek help and that doesn't make you less of a person. It's okay to seek help.


updated: September 21, 2023
originally published: October 7, 2014