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Empty Nest Syndrome



The birth of a child is eagerly awaited and associated with joy and happiness in many societies. In the African setting, where there is emphasis on procreating, parents have the responsibility of child raising and are occupied with it for many years. From the moment the child is born, parents focus on providing their all round needs, towards attaining their physical and mental growth and development, as well as preparing them to become full functioning members of the society. There is a great sense of pride and achievement in which parents revel, when their children excel in academics, extra-curricular activities and morals. All these aforementioned efforts are geared towards readying the birds, who in this case are the children, to leave the nest (home) a couple decades later. Many parents take pride in announcing the attainment and crossing of every milestone, such as entering secondary school, going away to University or leaving the country for postgraduate studies. For every time a child leaves home (the nest) temporarily (to school, camp etc), parents often experience mixed feelings of nostalgia and excitement as they acknowledge that they are maturing and getting ready for future exploits. In permanent situations such as moving out of the house, getting married, or relocating outside the country, parents experience a sense of pride in their child’s accomplishment, at the same time, a feeling of sadness and loneliness which becomes more profound as all the children leave the house. This stage in which “all the birds have flown the nest”, brings on a rarely acknowledged psychological response called the “Empty Nest Syndrome”.


The “Empty Nest Syndrome” (ENS) is described as a maladaptive response exhibited when children leave home. During this phase, parents are said to experience overwhelming grief, sadness, dysphoria and depression (albeit rarely expressed) and they might struggle with finding new roles, since there is the perception that parental role is lost. ENS is not a clinical diagnosis; it is a normal human life cycle.

Empty Nest is the period between when the last child or only child leaves home, and the death of the parent. Transitioning to the “Empty nest phase” varies depending on the number of children in the family. In families with more than one child, this transitioning process begins when the first child leaves the home, and ends with the departure of the last child in the home. In homes with one child, the transitioning process is shorter, as it starts and ends with that one child. The Empty Nest Syndrome is triggered by the absence of children, who have been persistent companions for the better part of the parents life. Also parents are usually worried about the safety and well-being of their children.


The child launching stage in the empty nest phase, involves a child leaving his or her parents for certain reasons such as work, marriage, university or college, and is described as a demanding phase in life that affects family structure, and relationship between married couples. Studies have reported that the child launching process could either improve or reduce marital satisfaction, vis-a-vis increased sexual activities, couple bonding, improved companionship or otherwise. Researchers have also proposed that couples with prior close and confiding relationships experience more satisfaction in marriage after children have departed, owing to the fact that parenting is demanding, and reduces the amount of time the couples share with each other. Thus losing parental roles now gives couples more time together and improves the sense of satisfaction from their relationship. On the other hand, in many cases (Read Iya Bola’s story), marital satisfaction could remain unchanged or decrease with the departure of their children. The launching stage may result in parents being depressed, as it brings an end to active parenting.


A widely held assumption is that empty nest syndrome affects women more than it affects men. This is because women are seen as the primary caregiver, and are more involved in the child’s maturational stages. As a result of the fact that women are more involved in the child’s holistic upbringing, they are also more attached to the parenting role, and as such, more affected when the child leaves the nest. Furthermore, it is noted that stay at home moms, widows and widowers find the empty nest period more emotionally stressful, with the home now empty. In relation to men, researchers have proposed that the empty nest phase is perceived differently. While women experience losing their dotting maternal role, men bemoan the missed opportunity of not spending more quality time with their children.


In empty nest syndrome, parents find it difficult to adjust to the reality of their now empty homes. However, there are parents who prepare for the empty nest period by communicating a certain age in which the children are expected to have left home. In situations whereby this planning doesn’t yield the results, parents are usually not happy about this situation, which is referred to as “Full Nest Syndrome”. In Full-nest syndrome, as the child ages whilst living with the parents, there is a sense of disappointment and unhappiness which the parents experience with the presence of the adult child.


Empty nest syndrome is a real but rarely discussed phase in the human life cycle, that is associated with pathological emotions (sadness, loneliness, worthlessness, feeling of loss, redundancy, and constant worrying about children’s well-being) in the older parents. It has been reported to trigger mental disorders like clinical depression, anxiety disorder, substance misuse, suicidal thoughts etc. Therefore, this stage should be adequately prepared for; it is advised that older couples and single parents be aware of this phase and plan ahead by rebuilding or strengthening their marital bond and social relationships (in the case of a single parent), jointly or singly seeking out new interests and activities to occupy and positively engage them, well before and after the children leave the nest to start their own lives.


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