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As this year’s new students settle into university life, many of the parents of the class of 2015 will find themselves somewhat lost and confused as they attempt to settle back into their lives, without children.
Empty nest syndrome is not something that is clinically diagnosed, but a description of a wide ranging phenomenon. When children leave the family home for good they can often leave parents with a feeling of emptiness and loss. In extremis this feeling can develop into alcoholism, depression and marital conflict but for most it remains a sense of displacement as calmness and stillness replaces noisy family life.
Empty nest syndrome is about identity: for 18 years you’ve been a parent and independent children can signal a change in dynamic of those roles. There’s less reason to be home from work on time, to make sure that tea is ready or to remember to pick them up from the train station. Because their identity is more intertwined with parenthood, women typically suffer more than men.
It’s not all bad news: because communicating digitally is so easy and quick, the feeling of loss is less pertinent for many parents. In fact, often, parents take on a new lease of life once their children leave home, and an empty nest is a good starting point in returning to the identity you once had. You are able to pursue hobbies you previously did not have time for and relationships, previously plagued by the problems of parenting, can be rekindled. And anyway, give it three years and your child will most probably have boomeranged right back to his or her old bedroom, and, before you know it, you’ll have dirty laundry piling up once again.
If you do, however, feel overwhelmingly sad at your child’s departure for university, there are a few tips and pieces of advice that may help.
Something as simple as eating together can bring a family closer.
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Try to think about and understand how you will feel when your child leaves. You can never truly know for sure but if you are expecting a shift then the shift shouldn’t feel so drastic. When I left home for university my parents were not hugely impacted because they were used to not having me around; I had been away at school and then went travelling for 5 months in my gap year. I am not advising that you ship your child off to boarding school ASAP but giving them a little space in their last year of school may help you to let go. If they ask to go away for a few weeks or even months, in the lead up to university, don’t say no out of hand. Maybe you could help and support them in planning for their trip. This would get you used to the idea of not having them around everyday and give them many of the skills they will need at uni.
Cherish the Moments you get-
Don’t, however, push them away in their last years of school. Allowing them some freedoms doesn’t mean never seeing them. Enjoy spending time with the family while they are all there. Not everything has to be about big events and spending lots of money. Just having a great dinner and some laughs can create a lasting family memory.
Keep in Contact (but don’t smother them)-
Some teenagers are rubbish with their phones, if they don’t call you it doesn’t mean they don’t love you, there is probably just a lot going on in their lives. I only spoke to my parents once every few weeks on the phone whereas friends of mine called theirs every couple of days. Every parent/child relationship is different. Only you know your child and what will work for them. I would advise that you don’t place too much pressure on phone and skype calls. Remember that students have a completely different schedule. They may be out every night and sleeping in until 10 everyday, meaning they are not contactable in the mornings or evenings. Using other forms of communication allows both parties to respond whenever suits them. I used to email with my mum almost everyday and although that may sound cold, it kept us in touch. Using a facebook or whatsapp messaging group for the whole family could help to take some of the pressure off communication and make it fun, rather than a chore. It will allow everyone to share funny stories and make plans together, meaning you all feel closer.
If you still don’t feel you are hearing from your child as much as you would like to then talk to them. Don’t berate them or put pressure on them, just convey your feelings in an adult way. They will in all likelihood not have even considered how their actions have impacted you and they are probably more emotionally mature than you think; they will be able to handle it if you open up to them. Just saying something as simple as, “it would be nice to hear from you a bit more often, we really miss your silly jokes,” may help them to wake up and realise that it is hard for you to be without them. You children love you and they will be missing you too. They just show it differently.
This could be your time to start an adventure.
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Lean on Others-
Open up about how you feel to other people in your life. Friends and relatives will be more than happy to help and can fill that gap for a little while. Organise for people to come and stay that you haven’t seen for a while, maybe a relative that lives far away or an old friend from uni. These people will be both an emotional support and they will make the house feel full again. This may seem like merely a stop-gap solution but having friends over and being able to do adult things will help you to envision the positives of having your house back to yourself.
Look on the Bright Side-
This may seem incredibly patronising if you are really struggling with being separated from your child but there are a huge number of positives to their departure and just thinking of these occasionally will help to soften the blow. You can finally buy nice food without worrying that it will all be eaten in one fail swoop, you don’t have to wait for three hours for the bathroom to be free in the mornings, you have so much more time on your hands and you can be spontaneous. You will have much more time and energy to invest into your other relationships including your marriage. You are entering a whole new phase of your life, which can be anything you want it to be and that is exciting!
Keep Busy and Start an Adventure-
Whenever I come back from a great holiday or trip I like to plan loads of things for the following week so that I do not allow enough time to feel sad or for the holiday blues to set in. Similarly, once you know when your son or daughter is leaving, plan to be busy for the following weeks. This will mean you don’t have time to notice how empty the house is. Because of the larger scale of the impact of Empty Nest Syndrome, it will not be solved by a few meals out but you can fill up your time more permanently. The extra time you will have will allow you to do something for yourself. This could be anything from joining a local sports or craft club, to going on an around the world trip or getting a degree. Have an adventure and get used to thinking about yourself and caring for your own needs again.
And Finally, Ask for Help-
This is hugely important. If your sadness at your child’s departure lasts for more than a couple of weeks or develops into something more serious, seek advice. Talk through the problem first with those closest to you but also do not be afraid to talk to your GP or a mental health professional. Don’t think of it as “being silly” or “overreacting”. A child leaving is a huge life alteration and, especially if combined with other shifts such as the menopause, marital disputes or a fear of growing older, can easily bring on a bout of depression.
Some parents may be embarrassed by their reaction to a child leaving home, believing they were cool, relaxed mums and dads who never lived through their children or put emotional pressure on them. This is ridiculous, nobody knows what type of parent they will be and nobody can predetermine what their emotional reaction will be to such a life changing moment. Furthermore, if your children are old enough to leave home, they will be mature enough not to feel uneasy because of how much you love them.