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Empty Nest Syndrome and Alcoholism, Is There a Connection?

Posted in Alcoholism

Change is difficult for most people, and it’s a given throughout life.  It can be especially hard, however, for a parent suddenly dealing with an empty home – that point in life when their last teen or adult child finally leaves home to strike out on her own. For some parents, the newly vacant house heralds the freedom to explore their own lives more deeply. Others parents, however, are extremely saddened by the experience of sending those not-so-little-anymore kids off into the world. The emotional pain can be significant enough to trigger (or worsen) a reliance on alcohol – leading to abuse or dependence, and a need for addiction treatment.

Empty Nest, Defined

Empty nest syndrome occurs when a parent (or other primary caregiver) experiences deep and lasting sadness, loneliness, or grief when a child (usually their last child) moves out of the home for the first time. Although it’s not a medically-recognized condition, its symptoms are very real.  In some cases, the impact is serious. Empty nesters may struggle with profound grief or sadness over the loss of their children’s constant presence in the home. The silence from rooms once filled with joy, chatter, and laughter is unbearably deafening.  Difficult emotions range from listlessness and boredom to tearfulness and despair.  For those whose lives revolved entirely around their children – whose entire sense of worth and value stemmed from being needed as a parent – the loss can be overwhelming.

While most picture an empty nester as the mother who’s crying at the door as her child drives away, research has shown that fathers are also deeply impacted by a newly empty home. In a study conducted by Dr. Helen DeVries, the mothers had a less difficult time than expected when their children left home.  Instead, they were already planning the next chapter of their lives.  Many of the fathers, on the other hand, reported being emotionally unprepared for the loss.  They were also more likely to feel regret about missed opportunities and lack of involvement with their children.

Empty nest syndrome can lead to alcohol abuse and addiction if a parent turns to alcohol as a means of alleviating – or “self-medicating” – unwanted emotions. Alcohol can provide a temporary escape, numbing painful emotions or assuaging anxiety about the future.  Unfortunately, though, the desired effects are fleeting.  Not only that, if the drinking becomes a regular event, more and more will be required to get the same effect.  As dependence develops, changes take place within both the body and the mind, impacting everything from how a person reasons to the way his or her major organs function.

Other Contributing Factors

Empty nest syndrome isn’t always the sole cause of an alcohol problem that develops or gets worse after a child leaves home. Several other factors can also increase the risk that an aging parent will struggle with alcohol abuse.

While the negative feelings of an empty nest can affect any parent or caregiver, some individuals are more vulnerable to alcohol abuse. For example, depression is a leading risk factor for alcohol abuse and dependence. If there’s a history of depression, it can lead to an increased risk of excessive alcohol use.  This vulnerability is especially high during major life changes, such as a grown child leaving home.

Dynamics within the home may shift in a negative way as well. For example, raising children can be the single biggest task that a couple performs together. What happens when that job they’ve spent so much time working on is essentially gone? For the first time in many years, two people can suddenly find themselves a “couple” instead of “parents.”  It’s not uncommon for one or both partners to feel that the other has changed since the relationship began many years earlier. Relationship issues can drive an already vulnerable person to seek solace in alcohol.

Financial worries can also exacerbate the negative emotions of an empty nest parent.  Many parents worry about paying for their child’s college costs, including tuition and living expenses. With the soaring costs or higher education, this amount can quickly reach $25,000 or more – just for a four-year degree.  Retirement is often not far around the corner at the time children become adults.  For parents who have been focused on raising a family, the strain of not having built up sufficient retirement funds can add an extra burden as well.

In addition to the factors mentioned above, the empty nest often coincides with a significant time of life for many parents. Mothers may be experiencing perimenopause or menopause, which can be stressful in and of itself.  Hormonal fluctuations and changes can wreak havoc with emotions, and even trigger a bout of depression.  Many parents are also dealing with other major life changes, such as caring for an elderly parent or grieving the loss of one.

There’s no question that this period of life can leave some parents feeling lonely, worried, anxious, stressed, or frustrated. When all these changes and negative emotions seem to pile one on top of the other, an alcohol problem can easily develop in vulnerable or predisposed individuals.  Addiction treatment may become necessary to turn things around.

Treatment for Alcohol Abuse & Empty Nest Syndrome

Empty nest syndrome is not uncommon, but self-medicating with alcohol is never a solution.  If you or someone you love is dealing with feelings of sadness, anxiety, or depression by drinking heavily, it’s time to reach out for help. Treatment is often tailored to each individual, but it typically includes a combination of detox, talk therapy and group therapy. Other services, such as family therapy, dual diagnosis treatment, vocational training, and/or conflict resolution training may also be part of a treatment program if needed.

Consult with a staff member or addiction counselor at an addiction treatment facility as soon as possible. They can help you determine the best course of treatment based on your needs, resources and situation.  If you’re seeking help for a loved one, addiction professionals will offer resources and tips for getting that person into treatment. If you’re dealing with a loved one who is in denial or resistance to any type of treatment, you may need to enlist the help of a professional interventionist.  The alcohol rehab center should be able to give you a referral if needed.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment: Alcohol use worsens the symptoms of any existing mental health disorder, such as depression, bipolar disorder or PTSD.  Those who struggle with both alcoholism and a mood disorder, particularly depression, have a greater risk of attempting suicide. Most alcohol treatment centers will assess you or your loved one for other mental health conditions. Because other psychiatric disorders are often present, it’s essential to address them as well as the alcohol problem in order for treatment to be effective.  Dual diagnosis addiction treatment programs are designed for this purpose.

Family and/or Marriage Therapy: If relationship trouble plays a role in alcohol abuse or addiction, family or marriage counseling can be very beneficial. It’s important to work on troubled relationships if recovery is to be successful and lasting. Even if you ultimately choose to end a relationship, therapy can help resolve issues that contribute to excessive drinking. Therapy will help couples or family members identify conflicts and resolve them in a healthy way, reducing the stress and anxiety that often contribute to or trigger alcohol abuse and relapse.

The newly empty nest is a time of transition for all parents. If you or a loved one is turning to alcohol regularly as a means to cope with negative emotions, seek professional help. An addiction treatment facility will offer the support, guidance and tools you need to reclaim your life and recover from alcohol abuse or dependence.