What happens when you leave your children

Empty Nest ”- when the children leave the house ...

In American family research in the 1960s, the “empty nest” phase was examined primarily in terms of its psychological effects on mothers. Depression, sleep disorders and life crises after the children moved out were grouped under the term “Empty Nest Syndrome”. However, these generally negative effects of the children moving out can no longer be proven by new research (Papastefanou 1997). Moving out of the children is undoubtedly a decisive experience, which can lead to grief and separation pain. However, the departure of the children also enables the parents to enter a new phase of life with freedom and opportunities for an individual and independent lifestyle, as will be explained below.

1. What is the “Empty Nest”?

The term “empty nest” cannot be precisely defined in terms of time. There is disagreement within the research literature about the beginning and duration of the empty nest phase. According to Harkins, the period of the empty nest begins after the last child has moved out and ranges from 18 months to a maximum of two years.

However, this does not take into account the fact that the separation from the parental home can begin before the spatial separation by moving out. The empty nest does not have to be an abrupt process, but can proceed step-by-step. For example, if the children live at their place of study during the week and only live with their parents on weekends and during the semester break.

Parents who have several children also experience the Empty Nest as the result of a long phase, rather than an abrupt change in life, as they have already dealt with this situation several times before the youngest child moved out. Family sociologists therefore speak of the “pre-empty nest” or “partial nest” phase. The time after the “empty nest” according to Harkins is called the “post empty nest” (Papastenfanou 1997).

The empty nest phase does not only bring major structural changes to the family system. Also emotionally, socially and psychologically, new challenges arise especially for the parents, which can have a positive, but also a negative effect on their lives.

2. When does the empty nest arise?

With regard to demographic data, the age of entry into the postparental phase can be settled in middle adulthood between the ages of 40 and 60. Due to the social change of the last 50 years, however, the trend can clearly be seen that the parents move out at an increasingly later stage in their lives. This is mainly due to the late date of the first birth. Whereas women had their first child in their early twenties in the 1950s, the average age today is just under thirty. Furthermore, the departure of the children has been postponed due to extended training periods and uncertain future prospects. The post-adolescence phase still often takes place at home, so that today around half of all parents between the ages of fifty and sixty still have at least one child. It must be taken into account here that living together with adult children does not empty the family nest, but does free the parents from their active responsibility.









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With regard to family roles, it is primarily the mothers who are exempted from active childcare on average from the age of fifty. According to Papastefanou (1997), the end of the active mother role can therefore also be described as a form of the empty nest, since women have to look for new ways of life and individual forms of design.

But even if the family nest empties later and later: the phase of active parenthood today is about as long as the phase of post-parenthood. That means: The empty nest is no longer, as in previous generations, at the end of one's own life, but the beginning of a new period. The average life expectancy for parents results in a postparental phase of 30 to 35 years.

3. How mothers experience the departure of the children

In previous studies on the postparental phase of life in women it was predominantly assumed that the departure of the children had negative consequences for the psychosocial health of the mothers. The daily tasks and responsibilities in household and upbringing also go with the children. The loss of the meaning of life “child” leads to the empty nest syndrome: loss of self-esteem, self and future doubts and depression.

However, recent research has shown that the majority of mothers accept the children's departure and enjoy the newly gained freedom and the relief of work in household and upbringing. The ability to assess the children's departure as a natural stage of development and to deal with it positively is strongly linked to the mother's own satisfaction.

The emotional ups and downs are shaped by individual influencing factors. It has been proven that women who have already worked during their active parental leave find it easier to let go. The grief over the separation from the children and the at least spatial end of family time is much shorter for women with family-independent life and employment constants.

In housewives, however, the pain of separation can be stronger and more permanent. After years of finding an identity through the care and work with the children, it is easier to find meaning here. The house is empty and it is often difficult to start a new career. However, the departure of the children acts here as a trigger, but not as the cause of a life crisis, since the identity of women was not previously built up sufficiently through their own individual life structure, but increasingly through the role of mother.

However, permanent housewife work as a family-centered lifestyle is increasingly becoming an exception in Germany: According to the data from the 2002 microcensus, around 61 percent of all mothers are gainfully employed. The older the children get, the longer the working hours. Almost 40% of all mothers with children between the ages of 15 and 18 work full-time, another large proportion work part-time. If one also considers that women are still predominantly responsible for housework and childcare despite their workload, this explains why many women perceive the departure of children as more of a personal relief than a burden.

A rollercoaster of emotions

In general, however, most women experience ambivalent feelings, which contain both joy and sadness and sometimes cause a rollercoaster of emotions. It's the emptiness after the storm. On the one hand, mothers are happy about the relief and tranquility, on the other hand, there is no noise and childlike chaos that previously shaped family life.

For women, the postparental phase involves a process of change: old roles have to be given up and new roles found. Women get the chance to reorient themselves. This can include a professional change, for example the change from part-time to full-time employment, but also very individual life plans can now be realized.

4. How fathers experience the departure of the children

"He / she is not out of the world ..."

This or similar could be the rational view of a father when the wife expresses her pain of separation about the departure of the child. But even fathers can be burdened by the sudden emptiness after the child moves out. In the first few years after starting a family, fathers face a lot of professional challenges. They try to consolidate and expand their professional position in order to ensure financial security for the family. In this professional development phase, there is often little time left for the family. Fathers come home late and often only see their children for a few hours.

By the time children grow up, fathers tend to have reached the bottom of the professional career ladder. This phase of life is also known as time shift, because fathers can relax at work and now have more time for their families. But at this point the children are independent and leave their parents' home. Papastefanou (1997) states that fathers in this age group have a greater need for closeness and family life. The departure of the children can also give fathers a feeling of “being abandoned”.

Due to the professional involvement, fathers did not experience many of their children's experiences, developments and special achievements. In the empty-nest phase, fathers can therefore feel that they have missed their children's lives and have not adequately acted out their role as fathers. Men can find compensation for these feelings retrospectively in the care of their grandchildren: “They make up for what they missed with the children” (Papastefanou, 1997).

5. Impact on the partnership

According to various surveys, the first serious crisis within partnerships can be found in the so-called “baby honeymoon”. The time with small children, especially young couples, often confronts major role conflicts and partnership problems.

The second major crisis area is the empty nest phase, when the children have left the house. Now it can be seen whether the bond of love is strong enough and whether the relationship is fulfilling for both partners, even without children. The care and responsibility for the children is no longer a daily task and the empty spaces that arise must be absorbed in partnership. Many marriages break up at this point, as shown by divorce statistics.

But here, too, the following applies: The departure of the children is only to be seen as the trigger for the divorce, not as the cause. It can be assumed that these couples have only acted as parents for several years and no longer as a couple. The responsibility for the children and financial dependencies have welded together. There were common goals and adequate communication on family issues.

Especially life with pubescent children can be a tough test for parents. The children begin to distance themselves from their parents and seek their own experiences as young adults. Puberty can be a lot of family struggles. It is often difficult for parents to pull together in this phase, to be consistent or yielding together. Under certain circumstances, a few years now pass in which a lot of strength and nerves are required from the parents with the stubborn offspring and the harmony of the couple relationship begins to crack. Life in the family demands a lot of time, the couple relationship is often neglected

Communication is important for a couple relationship

The empty nest phase presents the parents with a fundamental process of change not only as an individual but also as a couple. Calm returns and daily life takes on a new character. The relationship has to be redefined, common goals and interests have to be rediscovered and lived. Papastefanou writes that the freedom gained and the financial relief for parents in the postparental phase can bring great benefits. Spontaneous trips, trips and the realization of long-awaited dreams are now possible. The family station wagon can be exchanged for a convertible, and the children's rooms can be converted into hobby rooms.

The most important motor for a happy couple relationship after the children have moved out is the opening up, as psychologists call it. After years of full family life, professional and financial stress, the stresses and strains of pubescent children, couples have to give themselves the chance to rediscover them. Much of the important communication has been lost in the years before. In the empty nest phase, it is important to find a communication platform again through discussion and exchange with one another. 87 percent of the couples surveyed by Papastefanou register positive changes after their children have moved out. Almost half have come closer to each other again.

6. The relationship with the children in the post-empty nest phase

The father is usually right when he comforts his wife with the words: “You are not out of the world”. After moving out, young adults are still often dependent on the support of their parents. According to a study by Vaskovics (1990), almost 50 percent of parents encourage their children's autonomy through regular financial injections or benefits in kind. So maybe the rent will be paid until the young adult has gained a foothold in the job, finances the car or sponsors important everyday items for the new apartment. Many mothers also regularly take on household support. It is not uncommon for the weekly dirty laundry to be cleaned by the parents' washing machine and for maternal care packages to be packed to ensure a balanced diet. When it comes to helping the offspring to get on their feet, parents are usually ready immediately.









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Distance creates closeness

For a positive relationship between parent and child, it is very beneficial if the parents support them without imposing or instructing themselves. It is important that the child's autonomy is accepted and recognized. At the latest when you move out, the hierarchical gap between parents and child should be converted into an equal partnership. The phrase “distance creates closeness” is characteristic of many parent-child relationships in the post-empty-nest phase.

After the detachment in puberty, power struggles and family battles, it is an important experience for young adults to feel that their parents have equal rights and to receive recognition from them. If distance was created during puberty through demarcation and “being different”, rapprochement and closeness can now arise. The children then visit their parents not “only” to do the laundry, but also to get advice or to talk about their own new life. They let their parents participate in their own life.

Then, when parents become grandparents, the relationship can intensify. Grandparents often take care of the grandchildren in order to give the young parents freedom for work and leisure. The time with the grandchildren is often perceived as very enriching. Without any professional or financial stress, grandparents can catch up with their grandchildren for a lot of things that they missed with their own children. You don't have to worry. Their services are based on voluntariness and the desire to have a good time with the grandchildren. For this they get the affection of the grandchildren and the thanks of the children.

The post-empty-nest phase can therefore give parents the opportunity to maintain an intensive relationship with their children.

7. Summary

The term “Empty Nest” as a synonym for the departure of the children contains a negative association. An empty nest is no longer warm, it is deserted and stands as a sign of the warmth of the nest. And, of course, the departure of the children causes grief for the parents. A chapter in life has come to an end and the children go their own way. When the house is suddenly empty, parents have to get used to their new life and fill their couple relationship with new content and redefine their roles.

Parents should keep in mind that the time to move out will come and will be a natural process in their children's development. In addition to household and family responsibilities, it is especially important for women to cultivate individual interests or to look for a career path. If one's own identity is defined solely through the role of the mother, the empty nest phase can lead to a serious crisis.

Couples can take preventive action by starting their own activities again as soon as the children are big enough. Time together and communication promotes the role of the couple in addition to the daily responsibility of parenting. In addition, it is usually a compliment for the children when their parents entrust them with the house so that they can go to the theater or eat out all by themselves. Parents can learn to let go and enjoy relaxed togetherness.

It's a process of learning. Parents often find it difficult to believe that their children are already that “big”. In retrospect, the time between Pampers and moving out has passed quickly and now everything comes so suddenly and seems irretrievable. There are a lot of things that parents would have liked to have done better, or they feel the desire to “give their children even more”.

But the move is only a spatial and not a family separation. The children usually give the parents plenty of opportunities for support, discussions and activities together.When parents realize that they have not lost their children but have gained time and space, the postparental phase of life can be a bright prospect for the future.


  • Social science research center at the University of Bamberg. Bamberg couple panel. 1995
  • Papastenfanou, Christiane (1997): Moving out of the parental home. Departure and detachment in the experience of parents and children. Weinheim, Munich.
  • Dobrick, Barbara (1996): Farewell to Children. Let go and meet again. Munich.
  • Vaskovics, L.A., Buba, H.P., Eggen, B. & Junge, M. (1990). Research report on the project “Family Dependency of Young Adults and its Consequences”. University of Bamberg.
  • Federal Statistical Office (2002) (Ed.): Datenreport 2002. Figures and facts about the Federal Republic of Germany. In cooperation with the Berlin Social Science Center and the Center for Surveys, Methods and Analyzes. Mannheim. Series of publications. Vol. 376. Federal Agency for Civic Education. Bonn


Bettina Levecke, freelance journalist





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Created on July 6th, 2004, last changed on January 13th, 2014