Why leaving home is a family affair

When a student starts at university, the whole family is affected
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The Independent Online

Where I walk my dog, in a wooded area close to Oxford Brookes University, I am sometimes stopped by a young woman student. A long way from home, she really misses her own Golden Retriever, and making a fuss of mine goes a little way to ease the separation.

Where I walk my dog, in a wooded area close to Oxford Brookes University, I am sometimes stopped by a young woman student. A long way from home, she really misses her own Golden Retriever, and making a fuss of mine goes a little way to ease the separation.

It is always supposed that it is mothers who suffer most from "empty nest syndrome": when their young ones finally fly off, even if only to the part-time independence of university or college, then some of the purpose seems to have drained out of their life - especially if it is the baby of the family who has just gone. With more mothers than ever working outside the home these days, and others maybe nurturing ambitions that can only be realised when the kids have finally gone, the syndrome may not be taking the toll it once did.

For every modern mother feeling suddenly adrift in an empty house, there may be half a dozen secretly pleased. Now they can devote themselves single-mindedly to a career for the first time since the first baby was born; now they can get on with the degree they never had the chance to study for earlier or the full-time job they have put off looking for until now.

In any case, mothers are not the only ones affected. The impact of a student departure on the family back home depends very much on the relationships which have existed there before the break comes. If dads and sons are particularly close, perhaps going to the local football match together regularly or sharing some other passion which doesn't interest the women in the family, then dad is likely to be disturbed by the change too - though he may not admit it to himself never mind others.

Mum may feel the loss of a daughter who has been a close companion more than that of a more detached son. And where siblings are good friends, the ones left behind can also feel the break very keenly. When my older son went away for the first time, the younger one was quite miserable for a while. When you've always been around a brother or sister, it's particularly difficult suddenly to become an only child in your teens. There is a lot of adjusting to do and it's not just the over-anxious mums of legend who have to do it. Even the pets can mope.

Of course, an awful lot of the emotional turmoil is carefully concealed. Family at home do not admit to missing the absent one, but concentrate instead on apparently practical worries about their well-being: the son who simply won't be able to cope with looking after himself, or the daughter who will be out on the town late with no one to make sure that she gets home safely. To an extent, this is parents wondering whether they will be able to cope on their own, and anxious about the loss of control which a child leaving home entails.

"Coping" is something that families need to think about long before young people go off to university for the first time. If there really are 18-year-olds these days who have never been away from home on their own, can't cook a simple meal, change the sheets, manage their money, and organise a taxi home, whose fault is that? Of course, they will learn to refine all these skills while they are students, and progress from dependency to adulthood, but it makes sense for the family to have been encouraging them long before university looms.

Passing A-levels is important, but learning how to avoid food poisoning, how to use domestic machinery and how to budget are going to be vital to a student as well. It's never too early to start.

And there are things anxious parents can do to make the absence easier. The pay-as-you-talk mobile phone gets cheaper every time you pass the shop and has many advantages.

It makes it impossible for a student to run up a massive BT bill at the shared flat, which he or she may find hard to pay. And it also means that parents don't have the frustration of an interminable wait every time they ring shared accommodation, only to find more often than not that student son or daughter is out anyway.

Just one word of warning however: calls for a nice chat from mum on a Friday or Saturday night when the student world is pubbing or clubbing are not appreciated. If a family can't run to a mobile, then chargecards which allow students to contact home free are a good alternative.

And if you are anxious about your precious child's ability to survive unsupervised in cheap rented accommodation, thena bit of practical help won'tgo amiss. Basic kitchen equipment, a cook book and asupply of simply prepared foodstuffs such as pasta, rice and Italian and Indian sauces always headed north with my sons when they were students in Manchester. Call it over-anxious mothering if you like, but both of them came back significantly better cooks than when they left.