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Coping with an ‘empty nest’ | A guide for parents

Coping with an ‘empty nest’ | A guide for parents

by Judith Charlton

For your child, going to university is the start of something new and exciting. For you as a parent, it’s the end of a chapter in your life and theirs. 

So, how do you cope when they’re not around any more and the family nest is feeling empty?

What is 'empty nest syndrome'?

It’s ironic that parents spend so much of their time carefully nurturing the skills and self-confidence in their children so they can let them go. And then when they do leave, those same parents are floored by how successful they’ve been.

They’ve become victims of 'empty nest syndrome': a feeling of loss and loneliness when your child leaves home and you realise your role in their lives has somehow shifted.

'Empty nest syndrome' doesn’t discriminate and can strike anyone – mums, dads, parents with only one child and those with children still living at home. You may start out determined to be unaffected, only to find that somehow, it’s snuck up on you.

And you can end up feeling horribly conflicted – happy and proud that your child is growing and discovering their own path in life; lonely and lost, and wanting them back home where they ‘belong’. It can also leave you questioning what you do next.

It doesn’t help that coping with an empty nest at university is exacerbated by very natural anxieties about how your child is settling in, whether they’re coping, are safe, enjoying themselves and doing well in their studies. But realising what’s happening and accepting it are two very different things.


How to cope with 'empty nest syndrome':

  • Take pride in a job well done. After 18 years of love, care and support, you’ve raised a human that is funny, kind, confident, balanced, embracing life and dazzling in their sheer potential – which is pretty good!
  • Enjoy the freedom. The run-up to your child going away to university can be hectic and stressful, so once they’re settled in, indulge in some of the things you want to do. Who knows, you might actually start enjoying your newfound freedom.
  • Don’t feel guilty. Day-to-day family life will be different, but it will reform around their absence – this doesn’t mean you’re excluding them. Your child is at university doing amazing things without you and the rest of the family; you’re allowed to do your own thing, too. Instead of feeling guilty, enjoy telling them all the family news, it’ll also help them feel connected.
  • Take your time. Coping with an empty nest can leave you wondering ‘what now?’ particularly if you’ve sacrificed your own career for your children. Be wary of rushing headlong into making drastic changes in your life. Instead, take time to work out what you want to do next.
  • Try not to worry. Try to be excited for your child, rather than constantly worrying about them – you’ve already given them wings, don’t clip them now with your fears and anxieties.
  • Be ready. Now they’ve left home your child will have to make their own mistakes – you can’t stop them and you shouldn’t try. They will still need you, in different ways and at unexpected times, so be ready to jump back in when that time comes.

Remember, you can’t hold your child back, even if you want to. But that most fundamental aspect of your relationship with them will never change – they still love you; you still love them.

After all, you will always be their mum or dad.

Although we use the terms parent/child in this blog for simplicity, it is intended for anyone fulfilling a parenting role.

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