Filling the Empty Nest: Eating Disorders and Moms Launching Children

Article Contributed By: Deborah A. Russo, Psy. D., Director, The Rosewood Institute, Rosewood Centers for Eating Disorders


“As long as I can remember, I hungered to birth and nurture children … My children fulfilled this purpose, and nothing will ever equal this role in my life.”

“I have lived 18 years focused on one thing, raising a good child. I did that. What am I going to do for the next 18 years?”

“Now that our children are gone I wonder who this man is sitting in the room with me. Everything around me is familiar but him and me.”

“My whole life was built around my kids … I don’t think about myself- then I didn’t have time, and now I don’t know what to do with it”

Deborah Russo ImageThe stage of adolescence is the highest risk period for eating disorder development, but not the only risk period. Other life stage transitions can usher in an eating disorder.

The Mid-life timeline is an example. In her book, The Woman in the Mirror: How to Stop Confusing What You Look Like with Who You Are, Dr. Cynthia Bulik addresses in depth the potential struggles associated during this life stage.

And, research is replicating the concern for women in particular who struggle with eating disorders during their adult years that may be overlooked and undiagnosed, lacking the treatment they need.

In a large study, Dr. Bulik and colleagues identified as many as 13% of eating disorders sufferers above the age of fifty ( Danielle Gagne, Ann Von Holle, Kimberly Brownley, Cristin Runfola, Sara Hofmeier, Kateland Branch, Cynthia Bulik, Eating Disorder Symptoms and Weight and Shape Concerns in a Large Web-Based Convenience Sample of Women Ages 50 and Above: Results of the Gender and Body Image Study, (GABI), International Journal of Eating Disorders, Wiley-Blackwell, DOI: 10.1001/eat.220121.)

How Sending a Child Off to College Can Hurt

Sending a child off to college or other independent venture is one of the challenges experienced during the midlife phase of life. For some parents, this transition brings on an internal crisis.

A new or reemerging eating disorder, depression, loss of purpose and fears and overwhelming anxieties are common symptoms. Many moms are often embarrassed that they are struggling and keep it under wraps for too long hoping the problems of low mood and sadness would subside.

“This is supposed to be a happy time for me; I don’t know why I am so sad”. What’s wrong with me?” are often echoed. As we explore together the current underneath the eating disorder we discover symptoms pointing to Empty Nest Syndrome.

What is Empty Nest Syndrome?

nestThe term Empty Nest is not an official mental health diagnosis, but describes a cluster of emotional experiences attached to launching, or having launched a child off to sail their own independent horizons. The Empty Nest experience is most often associated with parent (s) sending a child off to college, or leaving home for other reasons such as getting married. Feelings of sadness, blues, loss of purpose, loneliness are very common.

The experience of grief and loss of sending off a child to college for example, may also be happening during other changes of life, such as:

  • Menopause
  • Hormonal based mood changes
  • Body changes related to aging
  • Unfulfilled roles or career concerns
  • The death of, or sickness/aging parents

All of these may bring on feelings of loss of control. If there is disconnect or unresolved stress within the marital/caregivers relationship this will also add to the mix.

Empty Nest Syndrome and Eating Disorders

It may be no surprise that an eating disorder can creep into the spaces of the empty-nest. Sometimes it is unrelenting grief and loss of the most important thing a parent feels they have done with nothing to replace this sense of purpose and meaning.

This may also be the first time in many years that a parenting couple has had to actually fill their own relationship with meaning outside the focus of their children.

“We have worked with many moms who have entered treatment after launching their child who have had an active eating disorder for many years hidden away”, says Dr. Dena Cabrera, Clinical Director of Rosewood Centers for Eating Disorders.

In their book, Mom in the Mirror: Body Image, Beauty, and Life After Pregnancy, Dr. Cabrera and co-author Emily Wierenga write, Like any developmental stage, it is one step further in independence, and something you, as a mother, both want, and resist. (Chapter 13, As they grow- your changing role, National Book Network, Publ).

A Combination of Transitions Can Be Trying

Whether fear, anxiety or difficulty letting go, the launching transition can be a difficult transition coupled with other trying life challenges. Dr. Carin Rubenstein, author of Beyond the Mommy Years: How to Live Happily Ever After… After the Kids leave Home, conducted a survey of 1,000 women, and found that 10% of mothers experiencing the negative emotions associated with ENS have a path of unrelenting difficulty that continues.

She found that the subset of moms are more likely to have struggled with depression prior to the launching of a child, and are therefore more vulnerable than others during this transition. If you are struggling, the evidence indicates that it is imperative that you reach for support during this time.

Signs that Empty Nest is leaving you too Empty, for too long:

  • Sadness and depression that does not subside
  • Tearfulness that is frequent throughout the day
  • A lack of energy, desire, or ability to engage in new interests
  • A sense of lack of meaning or purpose without ones child filling this space
  • Inability to spring back to the activities that you look forward to doing
  • Isolation and loneliness /A lack of supportive and comforting relationships

If you experience the above symptoms, reach out for help. If along with them in your Empty Nest, you may be vulnerable to the development of an eating disorder, or other problems such as alcohol misuse and/or other mood disorders.

Fill up your Nest with New Life

    • An eating disorder is a sign that something is amiss. Whether its’ onset is directly connected to your child leaving home, or otherwise, it is recommended that you seek professional counsel and support. There are multiple online support communities for Empty Nesters as well.
    • Take an Inventory of the things you have always wanted to do, but didn’t have time for. Set goals related to self-care and nourish your dreams and visions. The list could include joining a book club with like-minded people, taking a vacation, building a friendship community, or, taking some courses in the direction of a desired hobby or work desire.
    • Give yourself permission to grieve, and create space for the memories. letting go of parent-child, and growing into adult-adult, your role with your child is changing, it doesn’t mean that you are not important or needed, just differently it is healthy to miss your child! You may vacillate from excitement to sadness… This is normal.

Old Couple

  • This is a good time to nourish your relationship with your partner to fill the gaps in your connection and attend to the state of this relationship, your goals and meaningfulness and direction. It is likely the eating disorder is increasing the gap between the two of you- your child might have been that before.


Studies also show that Empty Nesters consider this time to be positive to the spouse relationship. (Gorchoff, Sara M. et al. “Contextualizing Change in Marital Satisfaction During Middle Age: An 18-Year Longitudinal Study.” Psychological Science. Nov. 1, 2008. (May 9, 2011)

  • Expect that your relationship with your launched child will be a bit different and different can be good, very good! Growing in an adult to adult relationship can be extremely rewarding as you see your child making her/his way in the world.


Empty Nest struggles although may be difficult are a sign of a season of change. This can be a time to explore and not fear the question of “what am I going to do with the rest of my life”…. It is a time to fill your nest with new life that nurtures your relationships and your passions outside of your children. A time to celebrate the work you have done to raise them and begin to nurture yourself in the ways you have nurtured others throughout your life.

For resources on signs and symptoms of eating disorders and how to get help, visit Rosewood Centers for Eating Disorders.

About the Author:

Deborah A. Russo, Psy.D. Licensed clinical psychologist is the Director of Training and Education for The Rosewood Institute. She develops training and education programs for Rosewood Centers for Eating Disorders staff, and health professionals at large. She Hosts TRI’s nationally broadcasted Webinar Series featuring clinicians and gifted professionals from around the nation who treat eating disorders, addictions and other mental illnesses effecting adolescents and adults.

She is has 15 years tenure as a National Speaker, and 28 years collective clinical experience working with individuals and families to assist in coping with, and conquering mental illness. Dr. Russo’s passion includes advocating the proper treatment for eating disorders and removing the stigma associated with this illness.


These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals. We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.