Parents' Guide: Time to rewrite the relationship rules

An empty nest signals a new era for both parent and child. A little empathy can make it positive, writes Elaine Williams
Click to follow
The Independent Online
So, you go through the agony of waiting for your son or daughter's A-level results and maybe you stand by while they grapple with Clearing. You sigh with relief as they secure their university place. You load up the car, traverse a few trunk roads, shuffle all their personal junk in to a new room and that's it. The moment you turn your back and walk away nothing is ever the same again.

As with the day they were born, it is all change. After the feverish preparation for the big kick-off, parents return to the old ground while their children go off to play in a new league.

For some parents those first raw feelings of loss and emptiness can be almost unbearable and can lead to serious depression - the empty nest syndrome. Others, however, feel a surprising sense of relief, relief at snatching a break from all the noise and aggro of having a turbulent young adult in the house, relief at having a chance at last to do their own thing.

Whatever the response, and that will depend on personalities, parent and grown-up child will have to adjust to a new phase in their relationship. Although there is a separation, it is not yet permanent. A son or daughter at university will expect to be treated as an adult, but they are still likely to be financially and emotionally tied. University brings about a whole new set of experiences for parent as well as for student. Steve Potter is director of the University of Manchester and UMIST counselling service and finds that he and other counsellors often have to disentangle family relationships when talking of new ways of managing problems with students.

He said: "Parents often become too involved and can't let go or they become too detached. Either way, the student becomes anxious. Parents should show they are interested and give support, that they are there to provide a safety net, but are willing to take a back seat.

"Parents must establish trust. They have to trust their son or daughter to get through what is an exciting and risky time."

Parents and their nearly grown-up children, he said, should put some time aside to talk about the move to university, the transition "and its meaning for everyone". The danger is that wrong assumptions are made: "The son or daughter might be thinking, 'when I leave home I bet you'll get divorced' or 'I'm not ready to leave home'. Parents may assume they are thinking something completely different.

"They shouldn't jump to conclusions. They may worry about lifestyles and influences but they have to try to keep a perspective on those worries. They have to accept and tolerate the relationship developing in a new way.

"The first few months at university are rich in terms of new experiences. The student has to be open to changes and so do parents. Students will be comparing notes, gathering new perspectives. Parents need to keep their view on the longer horizon."

Changes to student financing and the introduction of fees is also bound to cloud issues. Students are striving to move towards independence while remaining very much tied to their parents financially. Bhavna Jani Neghandi, a chartered clinical psychologist at Amersham General Hospital, believes it is important for parents to regard their contribution as a gift they are making because they want to. It is then up to the student to make the most of opportunities.

She said: "They have to stand back and let them get on with it more or less." Mr Potter concurred that the challenge to parents is not to use their money as a carrot and stick. If they find themselves doing so then they should talk it through carefully and lay out some ground rules.

Ms Neghandi said that parents should regard the changes as an exciting opportunity for themselves.

They should talk through their feelings with partners and friends and compare notes.

Dr Dorothy Rowe, a psychologist and writer, says: "Parents may have another 30 or 40 years to go and they have to think about what they are going to do with that half of their lifetime." However, she cautions parents not to make big changes in their own lives without first informing their student son or daughter. She said: "A child has not left home until he takes all his stuff." So parents thinking of changing round bedrooms, taking lodgers, changing career, moving house or separating should also talk it through with their absent child.

She said: "I remember going home from my first university holidays, so looking forward to getting back to my old room, only to find my sister and brother-in-law had moved in. I was expected to sleep on the couch. That is still quite a distressing memory. My place in the home had disappeared."