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How to be an empty nester: Cultivate a new meaningful life for yourself

Feeling anxiety over your child’s departure is normal but don’t burden them with your feelings

So your child is moving out?

When your child who is an adult moves out, it’s normal to feel sad they won’t be around as much. The job of parenthood is to give them the skills to fledge. That doesn’t mean it’s easy when they do. “It’s that paradox of spending our parenting years working towards developing this person who can go out and live their life. Then when it comes, we don’t want it to happen. We don’t want to let them go,” says Linda Breathnach, member of the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy and founder of “Their leaving can be a form of loss. It might feel as if somebody has died. We may well go through all the stages of grief,” she says.

Be adult about it

Feeling anxiety and loss over your child’s departure is normal, try not to burden them with your feelings, however. “We need to be the adult. If we are finding it hard, we need to use our own supports. We have to be careful that we don’t cause anxiety or disempowerment by projecting our feelings on to them,” says Breathnach.


“If they pick up on our anxiety and our longing for them, they can feel burdened by that. They might also withdraw,” she says. “They might clamp down on expressing it when they find things hard. They might feel they can’t tell us about something that is difficult for them.”

So just put your big boy or girl pants on?

“Our role is to give them the message that they can still come to us. They need to know that we are the adult and that we are okay,” says Breathnach. “We might not be okay, and that’s okay and it’s normal, but we need to use our own supports to help deal with those feelings and not burden the young person.”

Let them make mistakes

It’s tempting to jump in and assist your young adult at every turn, but try holding back. “Because of Covid, maybe this generation hasn’t yet developed a certain independence or had the same learning opportunities of doing their own thing,” says Breathnach. “We need to be aware of that and we need to let them make the mistakes at college that maybe they didn’t get a chance to make between the ages of 16 and 19.”

They still need you

Your child may walk and talk like an adult, but they are brand new adults, says Breathnach. “They might find it hard to show their vulnerability as they try to prove they have it all together. There can be a bravado that can frustrate us as parents — in one breath they sound like they have it all together and in the next, they are asking the most basic things. We need to respect that and allow it. They need to know that they can call us and they can come to us.”

How do I fill the gap?

An empty nest is something parents should prepare for throughout their children’s lives. “We should always have our own interests, but that can slip when we become consumed with all the challenges of parenting,” says Breathnach. Having spent years of our lives tethered by their school routines and activities, being cut loose is hard.

It’s never too late to cultivate a life for yourself though. “The thing about parenting is that it’s meaningful, it’s about giving and it makes us feel good to support somebody. Volunteering can also give us a sense of meaningfulness in our lives,” she says. “Yes, our young person will always need us, but maybe no longer at the same level as they did when they were in school.”

Joanne Hunt

Joanne Hunt

Joanne Hunt, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about homes and property, lifestyle, and personal finance