By: Celia Dodd, author of ‘The Empty Nest
As the new academic year starts many parents will understandably have mixed feelings about their child leaving home to embark on their new life at university. And for many parents this year will be particularly tough after the pandemic forced so many teenagers to delay going to university and continue living at home during the long periods of lockdown. Many families became even closer as a result, and it will be even harder to say goodbye.
It’s difficult, too, for parents who had already faced their child leaving for university in previous years, only to have them return home for long periods during the pandemic. Seeing them off for a second time is likely to prompt another wave of empty nest sadness.
Because the transition can be so challenging for parents, student living specialists, Scape, who focus on supporting students to give them the best possible university experience, has worked with Celia Dodd, author of ‘The Empty Nest: Your Changing Family, Your New Direction’, to provide practical guidance and tips to parents on how best to cope, and even thrive, with an empty nest.
Prepare yourself for the ‘goodbye’ moment
One of the first big challenges you face when your child goes to university is the dreaded moment when you have to say goodbye, walk away and leave them on their own, explains Celia Dodd. It’s therefore important that parents prepare themselves for the complicated mixture of emotions that often follow, from sadness and a feeling of emptiness to anxiety and huge pride.
While this is a tough time for many parents, Celia believes that simply taking their child to university and helping them settle into their new room is a good start in helping parents deal with the transition. In some families one parent stays behind, perhaps to look after younger children, but if possible it helps if they can both go. That’s because it gives parents a good idea of where their child will be living and spending a lot of their time. Being able to visualise your child’s new environment day-to-day can be a real help in coping with this massive change in family life, says Celia.
Celia also suggests that parents should consider staying in the local area, whether it’s just for a few hours, overnight or even for the first day or two. If they decide to do this, parents should make sure they make their own plans for things to do in the area, because they need to give their child space to explore their new environment and meet new friends on their own. Even if first-year students are having fun settling into their new life, it can be reassuring for them to know that their parents are nearby just in case they have any issues, Celia suggests. It’s reassuring for parents too: being on hand to offer support with any initial problems helps them to feel more in control, rather than being worried and helpless on the other end of the phone. However, it’s very important that parents are sensitive to what their child wants: they may not want you to stay around at all and would rather get on with things on their own. Or they may feel happy for you to leave after a couple of hours. It’s best to take the lead from your child and talk to them beforehand about what they would prefer.
Dealing with anxiety and uncertainty
Feeling uncertain about the future is natural when a child first leaves home, and parents often worry about how the relationship with their child will change when they no longer live under the same roof, explains Celia. Over the last 18 months the pandemic has added new levels of uncertainty and anxiety; it’s something we’ve all had to live with. So the natural concern that parents already feel when their child goes into a new and uncertain situation may well be heightened and intensified this month.
It doesn’t help that there are so many aspects of life that parents feel they can no longer control once their child is at university, not least their safety, their happiness, and their ability to feel motivated and work hard. A new study by Scape that surveyed parents with children heading to university in the next two years found that 39% of parents worry that their child will be lonely and not make new friends, with 37% concerned about their safety. Furthermore, 36% of parents fear that their child will find the adjustment challenging and will take time to settle.
It’s natural to worry when your child first leaves home, even though parents feel proud of their child’s achievements and know that going to university is a great decision for them. It helps if parents can focus on what’s really important: that your child will be able to flourish and thrive independently as they begin their own unique journey in life, knowing that you are always there to support them when needed.
Universities and student accommodation providers can help to reassure parents through their focus on building warm communities, as well as providing wellbeing support. For example, student accommodation provider, Scape, has a team of people on hand 24/7 to help keep students safe, happy, and well looked after, as well as a front of house team who are mental health first aid trained. They can spot the signs if a child is unhappy and know how to step in to help if needed, which can be a huge burden lifted for many parents.
Embrace the change and view your empty nest as an opportunity
Instead of seeing your child’s move only as an ending, view it as a new chapter in family life and an opportunity to focus attention on your own change of direction, Celia advises. Looking after your own happiness and wellbeing is important for all parents when your child leaves the nest, but it’s also likely to improve your relationship with them. Children like to feel their family misses them, but the last thing they need is to feel guilty that their mum or dad is miserable and lonely without them. They may even feel more confident about spreading their wings if they feel you are embracing your own new direction too.
Celia advises parents to make a list of things that they’ve always wanted to do but didn’t have time for because they were too busy with family life. Scape’s survey of parents found that over a quarter (28%) of soon-to-be ‘empty nesters’ stated that they’d like to go travelling once their child has left the home, and 26% are looking forward to spending more time with friends and socialising more with their partner. 23% admitted that they would like to try out a new hobby, with a similar 23% hoping to continue their education or enrol on a course.
Celia explains that the world is your oyster when it comes to the activities and interests that you can get involved in once your child leaves home. It’s no wonder that, after the pressures of 18 months in and out of lockdown, many parents plan to go on a fabulous holiday to get over the stress, and are looking forward to spending more time socialising with their partner and friends and developing new interests. Making their own plans for the future can help parents feel that life is moving forward in a positive way.
One of the great things about the empty nest, Celia says, are the opportunities it offers to rediscover what you genuinely enjoy doing. When you’re bringing up children they are quite rightly the central focus of your life, and passions and interests that are important to you often have to take a back seat. One of the unexpected benefits of this new chapter in their lives that parents should welcome is this great chance to experience all of those things that you loved doing before children came along but didn’t have the time or emotional space for when they were growing up.
That’s why parents should do their best to shift attention on to their own new life, Celia advises. That may be difficult at times, especially in the first few weeks, when you’re missing your child and constantly wondering how they’re getting on. So parents shouldn’t rush the process. If they are finding the empty nest hard, Celia advises them to take small steps each day to help them cope and allow the benefits of this new stage in life to emerge. The first step is for parents to acknowledge how they feel, and, rather than brushing their emotions aside, accept that they are going through what’s bound to be a challenging transition in their life. Talking to a good friend, or your partner, will help if you feel down, and if a low mood persists for longer than a few weeks, it’s important to talk to your GP. It also helps to identify the times you miss your child most – perhaps when they used to come home from school, or at the weekends – and to find new activities to fill the gap. Make a list of small, everyday things you can rely on to always bring you joy.
Above all it will help if parents can focus on the many positives of the empty nest, not least your changing relationship with your child, and the huge achievement you have helped them make in launching successfully into the world. Over time, as your child becomes more independent, the bond between you will grow and evolve in all kinds of positive and perhaps unexpected ways. It’s also important to remember that, while leaving home is an exciting chapter in any child’s life, they will still need their parents’ support, possibly for many years to come. So at the same time as you pursue your own new direction in life you also need to be there for your adult child, whenever they need you. As a result your relationship is likely to grow closer and more equal as you both embark on the exciting new chapters in your lives.