With all the trials and tribulations that come with raising children, many parents joke that they can't wait for their kids to grow up and get out of the house. But when that time finally comes, some parents find themselves feeling sad, lonely, and even depressed . Here's how to prepare for and cope with your feelings when the kids fly the coop.

Living With an Empty Nest

When the older of Nancy Hebert's two daughters left for college, it was a relatively easy transition for Nancy, because her daughter attended a local college, just minutes away.

"I missed her, but it wasn't a very big lifestyle change," says the 49-year-old legal secretary from Rhode Island.

But when her younger daughter left a few years later to join the Air Force, Nancy's whole world seemed to turn upside down. "I fell apart," she says. "I was surprised by how hard it hit me."

Because empty nest syndrome is not a clinical medical diagnosis, it's hard to find statistics on how many people experience it. But as the children of baby boomers grow up and leave home, it's clear that millions of parents may identify with Nancy's story.

Learning About the Symptoms

While specific circumstances vary from family to family, the feelings parents experience also vary. These may include:

  • Sadness
  • Loneliness
  • Emptiness
  • Uselessness, or no longer having a purpose in life
  • Guilt (for example, if the relationship with the child was strained before he or she left)

In some cases, parents may experience symptoms associated with clinical depression or adjustment disorder, including:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue or lack of drive
  • Inability to seek or derive pleasure
  • Changes in eating patterns
  • Excessive worry or anxiety
  • Indecision

People experiencing any of these symptoms should see their doctor.

Accepting the Grief

One of the first and most important things parents must do if they're having difficulty with the empty nest, say the experts, is to acknowledge that they've experienced a loss and that it's okay to grieve that loss.

"It's a real form of loss," says Sandy Wasserman, co-author, with Lauren Schaffer, of 133 Ways to Avoid Going Cuckoo When the Kids Fly the Nest . Wasserman and Schaffer, both mothers who have gone through empty nest syndrome, contend that "the amount of time you invested in the relationship [with the children] is proportional to how much you suffer once they leave."

Seeking Support

An equally important step parents must take to cope with their loss is to seek out support, says Robert L. Smith, PhD, executive director of the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors. Dr. Smith recommends engaging the assistance of friends, family, or community or religious groups.

And "if someone is really down in the dumps and maybe shows signs of clinical depression, they should definitely seek the help of a counselor," says Dr. Smith.

Preparing While the Nest Is Still Full

One way to potentially lessen the blow when the kids leave is to prepare for it before it happens.

"It's helpful to start preparing and acknowledging in advance," says Dr. Smith, who recommends that all family members communicate with each other about their feelings regarding the impending lifestyle changes.

Wasserman recommends that parents get particularly involved in their kids' senior year in high school and try to "enjoy the process of the child starting to leave ."

It's also important, Dr. Smith says, for parents to have activities or interests in addition to those related to the children. Wasserman and Schaffer put it more bluntly: "Have a life." This may mean a job, volunteer work, or hobbies or activities unrelated to child-rearing, so that when the kids leave, it's not as if the parents' entire lives are walking out the door.

Shifting the Focus

Focusing on the positive aspects of an empty nest can also help parents deal with their sadness.

One such positive aspect is having more time to devote to activities you may not have had enough time for before, such as travel, paid or volunteer work, or a new hobby. For example, when Wasserman's kids left, she seized the opportunity to pursue a lifelong passion—learning to play the mandolin.

Hebert has even enjoyed some "benefits" of an empty nest, including not hearing the phone ring all the time and not worrying what time her daughters will be home.

Perhaps most importantly, Schaffer and Wasserman want parents to remember that if their kids are ready and willing to fly the coop, it's usually a reflection of good parenting.

"If they're ready to leave," Wasserman says, "then we've done a good job."