Just because they're campus kids doesn't mean the cord's been cut

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Indy Lifestyle Online
As thousands of students begin university life, many parents are left wondering what to do with theirs. Up sticks, pursue ambitions, or get divorced? But such decisions can alienate children, writes Shelley Bovey. Just because they're away, doesn't mean the children should be excluded.

If you feel like backpacking around the world the moment you have seen your child safely ensconced in a university hall of residence, think again. While we have been liberated from the gradual descent into old age, which was all our own parents had to look forward to, the current exhortation to get a life when the children leave can blind parents to the fact that their newly launched offspring are far from being fully fledged adult birds.

An announcement that you are turning their childhood bedroom into an office, study or even a guest room can considerably undermine their security. But there is a tendency to assume that this will not affect children who have begun to make lives of their own.

Not so, says Mark Phippen, head of counselling services at Cambridge University. "This is not a good time for children to lose their roots. They need to come home and find their bedroom is still there, and all the familiar things. Before parents do their own thing, they should think about what effect it will have on their children."

University is a time of transition between home and the outside world, referred to by psychologists as "the launching phase". The excitement and tension of the preparations for a child's departure can bring a sense of relief to parents when it all goes well, but there comes a point when they wonder what they are going to do with their lives.

There is a temptation to fill the void, to do something new. There are jokes about moving so that parents can escape their children; one couple did just that, deliberately buying a small two-bedroomed bungalow so that their offspring could not come home. The message they gave their sons was clear and intentional. The relationship between those parents and their children is now, unsurprisingly, almost non-existent.

Another family moved when their daughter was away in India during a gap year. Although they allocated her a bedroom in the new house, she never felt it was home. The decision was a fait accompli.

"Parents make changes for all sorts of reasons but students want home still to be home," Mr Phippen says. "They want to feel included in any decisions, and parents of grown-up children can overlook this. It may sound obvious but you need to discuss any plans with them. They will resent the apparent fact that the change has not been made with them in mind; they may even believe it is taking place because they have gone, and they will feel extremely alienated."

If a house move can shake a young person's sense of security, then the death of a parent rocks the foundations. Justin Worland was in his second year when his father was diagnosed as having testicular cancer, which quickly metastasised to his lungs and brain. He died five weeks before Justin's finals. "We'd had a very stable, happy family life," says Justin, who is an only child. "Suddenly all that was gone. My dad was dying and I couldn't lean on my mum because she was caring for him and she had more than enough to cope with." Justin felt torn in two. He wanted to be with his parents but couldn't help feeling a huge sense of relief when it was time to go back to university.

"It was hard leaving mum to cope, but I dreaded going home. It was no longer secure, whereas university became a safe little bubble for me. But it wasn't reality. The reality was that my father was dying. The worst had happened and my security had gone." Each weekend Justin drove home, filled with dread as he rounded the corner to his house.

Two things kept Justin going: the loving support of his girlfriend and his flatmate, and his determination to do well. "Previously I'd been carefree and reckless. But when I saw my father struggling it made me buckle down." A good degree was Justin's tribute to the father who did not live to see it.

Some things cannot be helped or avoided. Death is one; divorce may be another. Parents who stay together "for the sake of the children" often find their marriage coming apart when the children have gone. And they may assume that children who have left home can cope with their parents' separation. The truth is that they are likely to be devastated.

Clare Carter learnt of her parents' impending divorce during the Easter vacation of her first year at university. "I went home," she says, "and they sat there and told me they were splitting up. They said they'd known it was on the cards for a long time but they wanted to get me established. By the time they told me, the proceedings were already under way."

Clare had known for a while that there were tensions and rows and undercurrents, but nobody had mentioned divorce. She returned to university feeling betrayed and sidelined. It proved all too easy to turn to the escapism provided by drugs, alcohol, endless nights of clubbing and days spent asleep.

Clare failed her first-year exams and left university for a job in a pub. Now, two years later, she is trying to put her life back together. She cannot shake off the feeling that she had been excluded from her parents' decisions and actions.

Children are vulnerable to divorce at any age, says Denise Knowles of Relate, "and additionally so when they first go away. The changes they have to make are a big stress until they establish coping strategies." While there is no point in staying in an unhappy marriage, Ms Knowles believes that couples "should examine their timing, long and hard. And if the separation is inevitable, they must involve the children every step of the way."

University counsellors see a number of students affected by their parents' divorce. It is typically the youngest sibling in the second term, Mr Phippen says. They get a letter or a phone call to say their parents are separating; to the parents it seems the ideal time. "Students come and say: `I know I've left home, but this hurts enormously.'

"There may not be the problems of custody and access but the informal equivalents still exist at this age. They ask questions like: `where is home? How can I see both parents, and when?' Maintenance matters may be involved. It's absolutely crucial to talk through everything."

It is not uncommon for the children of divorcing parents to blame themselves, and grown children are no exception. They may imagine that the financial burden of university fees had caused the rift. Or they may feel that their own absence has contributed to the break-up. "Maybe if I'd stayed and been supportive this wouldn't have happened," they say. In such a situation they are likely to put themselves way down the list of priorities. Their distress precludes them from enjoying university and they may feel anger at their parents too. This cycle of misunderstandings can be pre-empted by ensuring simple communication in the first instance.

Going to university is about more than acquiring a degree. It is a rite of passage during which young people establish an identity and a new role. Students do a great deal of growing up at university, especially in the first year. Parents need to be aware that for some time their fledglings will have a foot in both camps and though they may appear independent - indeed may not even come home for vacations - it is not until after graduation that they really strike out on their own. Whatever goes on at home in their absence, they need to be as much a part of it as they always were.

Shelley Bovey is the author of `The Empty Nest: When Children Leave Home', published by Pandora-Harper Collins, at pounds 8.99.

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