On moving on: Are Canadian parents celebrating or mourning when kids move out for school?

File photo of students in a school lecture hall.
Students inside lecture hall of the Rheinische Friedrich Wilhelms University of Bonn. Ulrich Baumgarten/Getty Images

TORONTO – When Dr. Gordon Flett’s daughters moved to Ottawa for university, suddenly his household became a lot quieter.

With Hayley, and then a few years later, Alison, out of the family’s home and off to Carleton University, Flett and his wife had a lot of free time on their hands.

“It’s mixed emotions because parents feel they have more autonomy to do what they want but at the same time, they’re always wondering what’s going on with (the kids). The whole rhythm of the house feels out of sync,” he told Global News.

He’s not just a father, Flett is also a psychology professor at York University, studying family relations.

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Empty nest syndrome, when kids move on to higher education or to opportunities away from home, can leave some parents reeling.

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While it’s an unfamiliar condition amongst adults, this form of separation anxiety is very real, experts say.

“It is real, we just don’t know as much as we should know about it because the research is quite limited,” Flett said.

Is empty nest syndrome a tangible condition?

Dr. Barbara Mitchell, a Canadian scientist at B.C.’s Simon Fraser University, filled this gap in studying empty nesters with her research.

It was originally introduced in 1914 but gained popularity in the 1970s as many women were full-time homemakers, looking after children who then grew up and left the home. Studies suggested these women were then overcome with depression.

These findings faced harsh criticism though – they created stereotypes, implying that a majority of women dealt with depression, loneliness, loss of self-esteem and purpose once their kids moved out, Mitchell says.

“While the classical medical definition and symptoms of the empty nest syndrome have largely been debunked as a cultural myth, the term is commonly used to indicate any unhappy or negative feelings or emotional distress that parents have about their kids leaving home,” Mitchell explained.

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Flett saw it first-hand within the first month of his daughter’s move to Ottawa. He drove a van-full of her friends from Ottawa back to Toronto on a Friday. By Sunday, as he picked them up to bring them back to campus, his daughter’s friend clutched her father, both crying in the driveway.

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“I just remember this very vivid scene of the father and daughter crying – she didn’t want to go and he didn’t want her to leave,” Flett said.

Sure enough, the daughter ultimately moved home by the end of the first school year.

Empty nest syndrome under a Canadian lens

In Mitchell’s recent work, she interviewed over 300 parents who had experienced a child leaving home and had them recount the transition.

Overall, most parents didn’t report any severe negative feelings, but they encountered bouts of sadness, loss, anxiety or fear. Dads even felt as much as moms, which surprised Mitchell and her team.

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Overall, Canadian parents were “relieved,” they had more freedom, fewer financial pressures, more privacy and less responsibility. They were also glad their kids were launching into the real world on their own.

A small portion of the parents, though – Flett says it’s about one in four – suffered a long-lasting separation anxiety when their kids moved away.

“It’s an interesting concept that people who are adults have separation anxiety. Historically, that’s a disorder for kids,” Flett said.

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But over time, separation anxiety has made its way over from the childrens’ section of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – or the DSM, the manual all health care providers refer to – into the general anxiety section.

“It’s recognizing that this anxiety can occur over a lifespan,” Flett said.

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It’s understandable, too, he notes. As kids move away, parents don’t just lose extra bodies around the house, they lose a part of their purpose.

“(Parenthood) is a huge part of identity – it’s the biggest role you can have aside from being a spouse or a partner. Any transition is stressful because it involves an element of uncertainty that gets us starting to question ourselves, who we are and what we’re about,” he explained.

With the onset of “helicopter parents” – when parents micromanage their kids’ lives and schedules – it’s only fitting that empty nest syndrome would set in as kids move away and gain their own independence.

But the experts say that empty nest syndrome can be easily avoided, especially these days with advanced technology.

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Kids can Skype or text their parents to keep them updated on how they’re settling in, for example. They can also let them know that their parents are still needed and wanted in their lives, Flett said.

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“It’s important for both parents and children to have frank heart-felt discussions about the effect that the transition is having on them,” Mitchell said.

Sometimes, kids visiting home may be more for the parents than for the kids, Flett said.