Empty Nest Syndrome - hitting sooner than you thought?

“A feeling of grief and loneliness parents may feel when their children leave home for the first time, for example to live on their own or attend university”.

I still remember the day we took my older sister to university.  And the days afterwards. Both my mum and dad seemed a little...glum.  The house was quiet and we were all anxiously waiting for the phone to ring to find out what wonderful things my sister was now doing, but more importantly, to hear that she missed us too.


Empty nest syndrome (ENS) has long been associated with parents, particularly mothers, whose children have now reached an age where they are ready to leave home.  It is thought to lead to feelings of grief, loneliness and changes in relationships between spouses. It signifies the end of that particular stage in life, something that often parents report not being ready for, despite knowing that their child is applying for university or house hunting.

It is thought to create a sense of sadness and a loss of purpose, especially for those women who were full time mothers.  Although every parent will say they want to encourage their child to be independent and grow, when they do eventually reach the point of leaving home, the feelings can be bittersweet.

The most common symptoms of empty nest syndrome are listed below:

  1. A loss of purpose

  2. Frustration over a lack of control

  3. Emotional distress

  4. Relationship stress

  5. Anxiety about your children

Online Therapist UK - Empty Nest (ENS) advice

I am a mother of two young children (1 and 3).  My friends are also parents to young children. No one is anywhere near at the point where their children are leaving home.  So we have a long time to wait and prepare for empty nest syndrome. However, thinking back over our conversations, particularly over the last few months, I can identify at least four of these symptoms as themes in our chats.  What is it that my friends have in common and what have these conversations mainly been about? Their children starting school.

Which of these empty nest symptoms have been cropping up and what do they look like with regards to school age children:

  1. A loss of purpose

Whether they have worked throughout their children's early years or been a stay at home mum, when their children have gone to school mums report a sense of emptiness, an uneasiness about what to do with their days.  Even if a child starting school means a return to work, mums still state this uncomfortable feeling. Days are no longer filled with being demanded to do every little task. There is now time to think.

2. Frustration over lack of control

Throughout your child's early life you have been in control.  In control of what they ate and when. What activities they took part in.  Even the children they associated with. Now they are at the mercy of someone else.  They will be surrounded by children we do not know. The person we want them to turn to should they need something (their teacher) doesn’t know their unique needs, or may misinterpret what they are saying.

3. Emotional distress

You might find yourself bursting into tears at the school gates, whilst watching something on TV or listening to a song.  Whilst we come to expect a range of emotions from children at this time, it seems we have forgotten that this is a time of huge emotional upheaval for us too.  All transitions and change bring with them a range of emotions and during these times things that we would normally just brush off become a much bigger deal to us.

As empty nest research has shown, this transition brings with it a huge amount of thoughts and reflections from parents.  It seems when our children start school we go through a similar process. People feel sad that their baby is growing up, angry that they’ve not been able to be at home more with them, worried about the future and that they are getting older.

4. Anxiety about your children

Online Therapist UK - CBT+ Children at school - ENS

I remember when I first told my sister I was pregnant with my first child.  Her words of advice were, “welcome to a world of worry”. And she was right.  From before they were born you worry. However, similar to point 2 about control, whilst our children are little and still within our care the majority of the time we can manage our worries.  Once our children start school and we don’t know what is happening with them, it is harder to control. “Are they ok?” “Are the other children being nice to them?” “Are they enjoying school?” “Do they wonder why I have left them in this strange place?” “Do they think about me?”.

The difference between school aged children and grown children, is we can’t pick up the phone and text our 4 year old to find out if he’s eaten his lunch.  Their accounts of what has happened throughout the day are likely to be very different from their teachers. This is the time when we are learning to trust our child, just as we have asked them to trust us all this time.  We have to trust them to tell us if something is wrong, or they are unhappy in some way.  This in itself is another huge milestone in the parent child relationship to coincide with starting school.


So although empty nest syndrome has been exclusively associated with parents with grown up children leaving home, do we now need to think about it for parents where children are still leaving home...but to go to school?  Because although these children are coming home in the evenings and are there at weekends, it seems that many of the symptoms of ENS are exactly the same for parents going through both these life transitions?

And if we are going to apply it, does this change the support offered to parents at the school gates? Does it change the things we say to a mother grieving for the time during the day she no longer gets to spend with her little one?  Just like Empty Nest Syndrome, there will be some parents who won't experience these symptoms, both when their child starts school or leaves home. However, for many parents with school age children there does seem to be a big psychological transition that happens at this stage for both them and their children.  A change that needs to be recognised and supported by teachers, other parents and friends and professionals.

Written by Dr Alexandra Barnett.

Counselling Psychologist. My Therapist Online

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