Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Empty nest syndrome

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Empty nest syndrome:
What is the empty nest syndrome and what can be done about it?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. 'Empty Nest' comes from when the offspring of birds leave the nest.

What can potentially happen to parents when their children move out of home? Feelings of sadness, loneliness and grief? These emotions can be described as Empty Nest syndrome. The term comes from when the offspring of birds leave the nest, leaving only their parents behind (Figure 1). The Empty Nest Syndrome can be seen as a dysfunctional response to the post parental position, that is prompted by feelings of loss (Borland, 1982). This chapter provides information to individuals about the Empty Nest Syndrome. First, Empty Nest Syndrome is discussed, with the main cause being noted and people that may be more susceptible. Next, the aspect of emotion is discussed with a relative[say what?][vague] theory being linked to help understand the emotions behind the syndrome. The emotions and their impact are then identified, with possible ways of coping and treating Empty Nest Syndrome finally being discussed.

Focus questions:

  • What is Empty Nest Syndrome?
  • What is the emotional impact of Empty Nest Syndrome?
  • How can Individuals cope with Empty Nest Syndrome?

What is Empty Nest Syndrome?[edit | edit source]

Empty Nest Syndrome can be described as a feeling of loss, grief or loneliness that results from the event of children leaving their parent's home for the first time: the child living on their own for the first time. An example of this would be when an adolescent would attend a university that is far from their home, typically living on campus or close by to save on the time of travel. This syndrome is not officially categorized as a clinical condition but rather as a time of transition for parents (American Psychiatric Association, 2013), with feelings of loss and sadness being the most common reaction to such a life event (Psychology Today, 2019). For parents that have respective partners or more children, this period of time can be less severe; as they maintain some form of normality by caring for those around them and carrying on with their daily life. However, for stay at home or single parents, where their children are the main focus of their life, they are at the biggest risk of Empty Nest Syndrome; with the issue being more prevalent in women (Shakya, 2010). This entails their emotions becoming so adverse that it can cause psychological distress, often resulting in major depression for individuals (Oliver, 1977) and result in addictions to substances taking place (Shakya, 2010). Though there are many possible negative effects, Empty Nest Syndrome can be seen as a natural part of a family-cycle; being a stage that all parents could possibly go through at some point (Raup & Myers, 1989).

Defining Emotion[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

What is Emotion?[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. The Four Components of Emotion helps us to understand how emotions are formed.

Emotion can be described as "short-lived, feeling-purposive-expressive-bodily responses that help us adapt to the opportunities and challenges we face during important life events" (Reeve, 2018), yet it can also be described as "synchronised brain-based systems that coordinate feeling, bodily response, purpose, and expression so to ready the individual to adapt successfully to life circumstances" (Reeve, 2018). It is a difficult concept to describe as we haven't come to a definitive agreement as to what Emotion truly is, only identifying components of emotions and concluding that Emotion can be seen as a mental state (Cabanac, 2002). Components of emotion can help us to comprehend and explain how emotions are formed for individuals, being key in understanding their perspective and offering a possible explanation as to why they are feeling that way (Figure 2). These components are:

  • Feelings: The subjectively felt experience that has meaning to the individual, having some sort of personal significance with differing levels of intensity and quality (Reeve, 2018).
  • Bodily Arousal: The Physiological aspect of Emotion that involves the brain, heart, hormones and muscles; prepares the body for adaptive behaviour (Reeve, 2018).
  • Sense of Purpose: Motivation that is usually goal-orientated by the individual, their respective drive for their behaviour (Reeve, 2018).
  • Social - Expressive Behaviour: The way individuals express their emotions publicly through facial expressions, voice tone and general physical behaviour (Reeve, 2018).

The aspect of Emotion can be further understood by theories, explaining how emotions are formed. An example would be Lazarus' Appraisal Theory of Emotion, which focuses on the importance of the individual's appraisal of the situation (Smith & Lazarus, 1990). An Appraisal is an estimate of the personal significance of the situation, with the emotion of the individual changing based on how important that life event is (Reeve, 2018). This theory follows:

  • Situation: Life event occurs to the individual (Reeve, 2018).
  • Appraisal: Individual decides whether this situation is good or bad for them (Beneficial or Harmful) (Reeve, 2018).
  • Emotion: They then decide whether they like or dislike this appraisal (Reeve, 2018).
  • Action: Appraisal translates to behaviour, individual decides whether to approach or withdraw (Reeve, 2018).

With regards to Empty Nest Syndrome, we can use this theory to assess what possible emotions the parents could be feeling. The Situation would be the child leaving home, with the Appraisal of the parent being that this would be bad for them. This leads to an Emotion of sadness, as they dislike the appraisal, leading to an Action of withdrawal from the people around them. Theories like this can help us understand and grasp how our emotions are formed and how we can control them.

Emotional Impact of Empty Nest Syndrome[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Sadness[edit | edit source]

Sadness is one of the basic emotions that individuals can feel after being harmed or receiving a threat. This emotion can usually be caused by an event of separation or failure from the individual, resulting in behaviours that seek redemption or forgiveness (Reeve, 2018). In the case of Empty Nest Syndrome, Sadness is felt as a result of a child separating from their respective parent. The emotion of sadness can negatively affect an individual's wellbeing, with it being positively correlated to the physiological stress in adults; also being linked to the goal disconnectedness of adults (Sacher, Barlow & Wrosch 2018). Furthermore, individuals that are experiencing sadness are more prone to make errors; affecting how they normally function (Jallais, Gabaude & Paire-Ficout, 2014). Though this emotion can cause motivation in the individual wanting to change their behaviour (Polman & Kim, 2013), it can be detrimental to the wellbeing of individuals affected by the Empty Nest Syndrome.

Grief[edit | edit source]

Grief is an emotion that is formed in response to loss, being a feeling of distress; stemming from the emotion of sadness. In the case of Empty Nest Syndrome, Grief comes as a result of the parents feeling like they lost their child. This can have a significant impact on the individual, with grief negatively affecting the physiological activity on the body; a result caused by grief-related stress (Arnette, 1996). This process of loss can be described by the Kubler-Ross model, which portrays grief in 5 stages:

  • Denial: The initial reaction that individuals have when experiencing loss (Bolden, 2007).
  • Anger: Individuals in grief become angry at not only themselves but the event in general, possibly projecting their anger on to individuals around them (Bolden, 2007).
  • Bargaining: In an attempt to evade the feeling of grief, the individual tries to find a way to avoid the cause; in the case of Empty Nest Syndrome, this would be finding a way to keep the child at home (Bolden, 2007).
  • Depression: The individual becomes saddened by their situation, reflecting on either missed opportunities or unfinished projects; slowly coming to accept the situation (Bolden, 2007). For Empty Nest Syndrome, this could be the parent/s reflecting on how they could have improved their relationship with their child.
  • Acceptance: The final stage where the individual accepts the situation for what it is, with their emotions eventually stabilising (Bolden, 2007).

Though Grief can be a process of acceptance for the individual, it can cause just as much harm to their wellbeing.

Figure 4. Individuals can still feel lonely, even when surrounded by people.

Loneliness[edit | edit source]

Loneliness is categorized as an emotional response that individuals have towards isolation. This isolation can encompass little to no social interaction with other people but does not necessarily mean that is solely loneliness. An example can be the loneliness that individuals feel even when surrounded by people, being similar to a mental state as well as an emotion; this can be applied to relationships, whether they be romantic or familial (Cacioppo, Fowler & Christakis, 2009). In the case of Empty Nest Syndrome, the feeling of loneliness would possibly be majorly present after the child leaves. This response is unhealthy for the body, as it can negatively impact the cardiovascular, immune, and nervous systems; detrimentally affecting the individual's health (Miller, 2011). Furthermore, loneliness has been evidenced to increase an individual's risk of depression (Cacioppo, Hughes, Waite, Hawkley & Thisted, 2006); a risk that is already associated with Empty Nest Syndrome (Oliver,1977). The emotional response of loneliness can be detrimental to the individual's wellbeing and lead to larger issues in health if not confronted early on.

Coping and Treating Empty Nest Syndrome[edit | edit source]

Individuals that suffer from Empty Nest Syndrome can cope and move past this stressful period of time. For most parents, this results in involving themselves with a numerous amount of activities; with hobbies and other interests being taken up, as they are now able to commit more time towards this. This helps individuals to adjust their focus, spending less of their energy on thinking about what they have lost (Chen,Yang & Aagard, 2012). For single parents or the elderly, community participation has been shown to relieve the symptoms of Empty Nest Syndrome and becoming a way for parents to meet other individuals like themselves; forming social groups that fulfil their social needs (Wang & Zhao, 2011). For some individuals, these activities can be seen as tedious, boring or possibly activities that serve no bigger purpose; which is an understandable perspective. Parents spend a large portion of their lives either raising their children or working at their respective job to support their family. This idea of employment can serve as means of parents finding a new purpose, pursuing an area that they are passionate about or want to make a difference in (Roncal Vargas & Gordillo Sevares, 2003).

For parents that still have their respective partner, this period of time can be beneficial to their relationship:[grammar?] becoming a time where they can change their focus to one another. As previously mentioned, a majority of a parents time is taken up with their children which lead to very little time that they can spend with their significant other. After the children leave the home, the marital status of couples seemingly improves as a result (Bouchard, 2014)[Provide more detail]. Though couples generally are less affected by their children leaving home, their new focus of spending time with each other can result in a higher quality of life (Lyons, 2008).

Quiz[edit | edit source]

1 Who is the most at risk of Empty Nest Syndrome?

Married Couples
Single, Stay at home parents

2 What is the most important stage of Lazarus' Appraisal Theory of Emotion?


3 In which stage of the Kubler-Ross model does the individual avoid the feeling of Grief?


4 What is not a good way to cope with the Empty Nest Syndrome?

Being Alone
Improve Relationships

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Though it is called the Empty Nest Syndrome, it is more of a transitional period for parents to accept the independence of their child that can be considered a normal part of the family cycle (Raup & Myers, 1989). In this stage, feelings of sadness, grief and loneliness can consume the individual; with the emotional impact affecting the individual's psychological, physiological and emotional wellbeing. If these emotions are left unresolved then it can further affect the individual's health, leading to the development of mental illnesses such as Depression. Parents need to be aware of these ramifications, especially if they're a single parent, as it can gravely affect their overall quality of life. However, they must also know that there are ways that they can overcome this through social participation, the pursuit of employment or hobbies and improving their existing relationships. Individuals must be aware of how our emotions can affect our psychological state as well as our physical state, playing a pivotal role in maintaining our overall well-being. Through understanding the components of emotions, we can gain insight into how our emotions are formed and how we can better control them.

See Also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Publisher.

Arnette, J. K. (1996). Physiological effects of chronic grief: A biofeedback treatment approach. Death studies, 20(1), 59-72.

Bolden, L. A. (2007). A review of on grief and grieving: Finding the meaning of Grief through the five stages of loss. Counselling and Values, 51, 235-237.

Borland, D. C. (1982). A cohort analysis approach to the empty-nest syndrome among three ethnic groups of women: A theoretical position. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 117-129.

Bouchard, G. (2014). How do parents react when their children leave home? An integrative review. Journal of Adult Development, 21(2), 69-79.

Cabanac, M. (2002). What is emotion? Behavioural Processes, 60(2), 69–83.

Cacioppo, J. T., Fowler, J. H., & Christakis, N. A. (2009). Alone in the crowd: The structure and spread of loneliness in a large social network. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97, 977–991.

Cacioppo, J. T., Hughes, M. E., Waite, L. J., Hawkley, L. C., & Thisted, R. A. (2006). Loneliness as a specific risk factor for depressive symptoms: Cross sectional and longitudinal analyses. Psychology and Aging, 21, 140–151.

Chen, D., Yang, X., & Aagard, S. D. (2012). The empty nest syndrome: Ways to enhance quality of life. Educational Gerontology, 38(8), 520-529.

Jallais, C., Gabaude, C., & Paire-Ficout, L. (2014). When emotions disturb the localization of road elements: Effects of anger and sadness. Transportation research part F: traffic psychology and behaviour, 23, 125-132.

Lazarus, R.S., & Smith, C. A. (1990). Emotion and Adaption. In L.A. Pervin (Ed.). Handbook of Personality: Theory and Research (pp. 609-637).

Lyons, L. (2008). Is empty-nest syndrome nothing but an empty myth? U.S. News & World Report. Retrieved from

Miller, G. (2011). Social neuroscience. Why loneliness is hazardous to your health. Science (New York, N.Y.), 331(6014), 138–140.

Oliver, R. (1977). The empty nest syndrome as a focus of depression: A cognitive treatment model, based on rational emotive therapy. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 14(1), 87.

Polman, E., & Kim, S. H. (2013). Effects of anger, disgust, and sadness on sharing with others. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(12), 1683-1692.

Roncal Vargas, C., Gordillo Sevares, M., & Roncal Vargas, C. (2003). The First Job for Women Older than 45 Years Old. Cuadernos de Trabajo Social, (16), 269–282.

Psychology Today. (2019). Empty Nest Syndrome. Psychology Today. Retrieved from

Raup, J. L., & Myers, J. E. (1989). The Empty Nest Syndrome: Myth or Reality?. Journal of Counseling and Development, 68(2), 180-83.

Reeve, J. (2018). Understanding motivation and emotion (7th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.


Shakya, D. (2010). Empty Nest Syndrome - An Obstacle for Alcohol Abstinence. Journal of Nepal Health Research Council, 7(2), 135–137.

Wang, J., & Zhao, X. (2011). Empty nest syndrome in China. Int J Soc Psychiatry, 58(1), 110.

External Links[edit | edit source]

Better Health Channel | Empty Nest Syndrome.

Tips for Coping with Empty Nest Syndrome.