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Empty Nest: change takes time

My children are now 19 and 21 years old. Although the 21-year-old took two years out to work for a bit, both have now gone to university at the same time.

On the day I took my daughter I could tell she was ready to go. I would use the expression ‘chomping at the bit!’. It wasn’t that she was eager to be away from me exactly, but ready to get on with her life. We carted her stuff into her room with no lift and most of the contents of the house in our hands! Exhausted but happy, she was looking forward to unpacking her boxes. She also met most of the other kids on her floor within only a few minutes of arriving. There were eight of them who had to share a kitchen and keep it tidy.

In contrast, my son was lucky, and his accommodation had a kitchen for him and only two other boys. His room had a small double bed and enough space to empty most of his wardrobe from home including his rugby kit!

Because my son was the second to go, I drove back home from him with a heavy heart. It didn’t surprise me that I was on BBC Sussex and Surrey radio the next day to comment on empty nest. I sat waiting to speak and listened to a young woman describe how she missed her mum. Her mum then described how she missed her much loved daughter, and it created a pang. But there are a few observations about this stage of our lives that seem as relevant to me as it does to them:

1. They have not gone anywhere. What I mean is, although they may live somewhere different for a period, they still need me. Both my kids value my advice, problem solving ability, and support. It isn’t because I’m a psychologist, to them I am their mum and I always will be. There is no substitute for a hug from me even if I must give it over the telephone or a video call sometimes. Their foray into the world is still fraught at times, and I act as a safety net to catch them!

2. If we both stop and think about it, this is as much the next chapter of my life as it is theirs. If I choose to see it as such, then I decide what I do with my time. There is something liberating about that. For mums, we have a type of satellite dish which is up all the time when our kids are around. The dish works as a receiver for all things needed by my children. ‘Have I got any food in, have they got their lunch, has my son got his golf or rugby stuff?’. Unless I am fast asleep, this dish is ‘on send and receive’ all the time when they are with me. I don’t resent it, and I don’t worry about it. Knowing that I don’t have to use it all the time is a revelation and a relief of sorts.

3. I always knew this phase was coming. I may not have known they would go to Uni but once their A-levels were over, I knew both would move on with their lives. Even if they were to go out to work, they would want to move out and make a life for themselves. In that sense, we are ‘caretakers’ as parents. We don’t get to own our kids, but we can influence how they cope, with both this change and any other big change in their lives. This is a life skill and it will stand them in good stead. They may find new experiences daunting. Now they will learn independence, courage and decision making.

4. As tough as it is, it’s important to help them adjust before, or at the same time, as we ourselves are doing. They must learn this skill from us too. The ability to cope with emotional pain is crucial to help them adapt to change. They may experience loneliness. This is indistinguishable from pain. Helping them know what to do as well as these emotions are ok or normal, is important. If you are finding it tough as a parent during this phase, try to talk to other parents or friends rather than your kids. If you need to, tell your children you want them to be happy and that you’ll be fine rather than emphasising your loss. Otherwise, they can read it as a burden, obligation or ‘pull’ on them. Then they’ll try to come home to help you rather than themselves. Let your grief or loss out, without leaning on them if you can. The reason is simple: they need to know we are okay as we are their rock around which they swim. So, keep busy, reach out if you need and think about how lucky you are. They are feeling able to do something amazing because of the opportunity you are giving them.

5. Life skills are important. Yesterday I found myself in the practice talking to somebody for their first meeting with me. This individual was not in crisis themselves. They had the common sense to come and see me before their mental health had drifted too far downwards. I was grateful for this, because it is easier to fix somebody’s view on an issue if they are not too miserable and unhappy. I told him as I have said to others, it is important young people learn the skills needed to handle their lives. This includes:

- coping with emotional pain (such as rejection, failure, disappointment and fear)

- handling loneliness,

- solving problems,

- making decisions,

- learning strong self-esteem

If life goes well for us, it can be great. But our experiences vary, and life doesn’t go well for all. If we could have the chance to learn about life as we go, we could take our time and absorb each experience in our own way. Processing things and adapting, which would be good. Instead, young people handle high speed technology, fast paced change and high expectations. They need to ‘move on’ to keep up and sometimes struggle to open up, express unhappiness, or ask for help. Peer pressure means they often feel the need to ‘get on with it’ so that they are available for others and don’t miss out. Fear of missing out or FOMO is strong in them I find.

By the time we are adults we need these skills, but they are learnt during adolescence or young adulthood. If we don’t get opportunities to learn them, or we don’t get taught them, we start to look for coping mechanisms. The world does not feel a safe place. This is important. We all need to feel safe and secure. But, if our world is painful, difficult or scary we retreat. It is my belief we turn our thoughts inwards. These thoughts begin to find fault, with ourselves. We begin to criticise ourselves and believe we are the only ones who are struggling. Because we are struggling, we are certain we are useless or at the very least, stupid.

So, begins a vicious circle and I’m certain, this can be how anxiety develops. It might also be how damaging self-talk begins. We blame ourselves because we cannot cope instead of recognising this is a skill. We need to reach out to people who can teach it to us. We wouldn’t expect to build a house without the skill, so why would we expect to cope with change without the skill?

Also, by the time we are a university student we have learnt that life is sometimes unfair and tough. Even if we have had an easy ride thus far, someone near us will have had it tougher. It is unlikely we lack sympathy for them, yet we can be lacking in sympathy for ourselves! We become impatient, pushy, and then unhappy.

6. Yet it is not about blame. If you are struggling as a young person at Uni or as a parent, it isn’t your fault. It doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong. But it does mean, that you need time, someone to learn from and to be kind to yourself. You need to seek out someone to guide you. Try to copy someone who is handling things better than you are. If you are a student, reach out for support from Student Services. You can talk about your issue until the feelings ease.

When a young person is struggling try to reassure them of the following things:

1. They are fine. No one has gone anywhere in their life, they haven’t lost you, and you still love them very much. As a result, they realise you are there, but not in the same house anymore.

2. It’s okay to feel low but it’s better to have a strategy or plan. With a plan in place, you, or they, can begin to feel less adrift. The plan needs to be about looking for things to do.

3. Look for ways to do the things you enjoy and encourage your child to do the same. Go to the gym, spend time with friends, have a beer, and watch TV. These are all okay. Structure your day so that you, or they, have a bit of time for each of these. But, reach out too. Seek help if needed either in online forums, articles you find or advisers you ask to meet with. Other people – both parents and students – have been through this and there is much they can offer.

4. Try to make an effort. Doing this means getting out of your room or house and going to find people. People are a panacea for your pain or discomfort. They are someone to talk to – usually about something else. This is so that you can take a break from your sadness.

5. This phase will not last. You each may need a technique to manage your emotional distress. Start looking for the good days so that in any one week you notice things are getting better. Both students and parents can do this. Unfortunately, though, many young people aren’t used to being away from home. They're not used to a lack of structure in their day. They need to discover how to feed themselves and skills we take for granted as adults. Budgeting is key so that they don’t run out of money. Ironing is not as simple as it looks, and socialising to avoid isolation, is important too. Tackle these skills before your child goes to Uni if you can.

6. If their homesickness doesn't ease, please encourage them not to suffer in silence. I know students can feel the pressure not to tell us as their parent/s, fearing we will disapprove. This is difficult. So, if they feel this, I would encourage them to know about Student Services before they get there. Student services are an excellent resource. They know what to do when young people are unhappy or uncertain. They will know what to say and no one needs to know that a student sought their help if that matters to them.

This is a big change in the life of a new Uni student and in the life of a new PWK or ‘parent without kids’ but it does ease. Having a sense of perspective and allowing yourself some time, is essential. Being kind to yourself in the process and seeking help is all most of us need. But, the first step is to recognise it is ok and that it takes time to get skilled. This is often an under-valued process. It's part of the learning curve we all go through. May be a University needs to dedicate more time to the 'management of change' when kids leave home. Food for thought!

Good luck and hope it goes well.

Author's Bio


Sue Firth, Psychologist and author ‘More Life-less Stress!’ and ‘Taking the Stress out of Leadership!’ available on Amazon

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