PARENTS: Empty nests

Starting university or college is an emotional time for students - but what's it like for their parents?
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The Independent Online

It's impossible for parents to predict how they'll react when their teenage child goes off to university or college. Clearly it depends a huge amount on what else is happening in their own lives, how closely involved they've been with their children, how well they get on and, crucially, how much they trust each other. And it need not be all bad: families with teenagers who are straining at the leash often find relations are dramatically improved by the separation. Other parents simply dread the prospect of peace and quiet. Either way, they're likely to be surprised by how they feel when it comes to the crunch.

It's impossible for parents to predict how they'll react when their teenage child goes off to university or college. Clearly it depends a huge amount on what else is happening in their own lives, how closely involved they've been with their children, how well they get on and, crucially, how much they trust each other. And it need not be all bad: families with teenagers who are straining at the leash often find relations are dramatically improved by the separation. Other parents simply dread the prospect of peace and quiet. Either way, they're likely to be surprised by how they feel when it comes to the crunch.

Bhavna Jani-Negandhi, a clinical psychologist explains that there are two common responses to the separation. "The first is the sense of bereavement, loss and feeling low we would expect with such a major change. But the other much more surprising response is relief at having time to yourself. And there may also be guilt associated with that."

A busy life with loads of distraction is bound to make the transition easier. It helps to plan ahead, for yourself as well as your teenager. Most parental energy may be going into psyching them up and making sure they've got all the right stuff, but planning your own new life is just as important. Booking up some seriously enjoyable social outings or joining a new evening or exercise class could really help you through the early weeks.

Jani-Negandhi says: "Finding a new interest and keeping busy some of the time is a good idea, but don't block out your feelings completely. The first step must be to acknowledge and understand your feelings. The next step is to see if this is an opportunity for growth for you. It can be a very positive period, particularly if a parent has had to put a lot of their own needs on hold. Now they have time for themselves."

Even the most confident teenager is bound to feel a bit nervous, and it's reassuring for both sides to talk though any anxieties before they go, and to make sure they know they can contact you at any time. By the same token they should realise that the odd phone call or email will make a huge difference to you. Because even the coolest, most trusting parents find it hard to relinquish responsibility. It takes time to adapt to the new status quo, where you can only worry at arm's length about whether your child is a) safe, (b) drinking too much, (c) doing any work or (d) making friends.

And when it's time to say goodbye, should parents put on a brave face? Jani-Negandhi thinks there is little point: "Your child will probably know what you're really feeling. So be honest and say, of course I'll miss you but I'll cope – it might be a bit of a struggle, but I'm thinking ahead. Don't make such a big song and dance about it that you make your child feel guilty, and don't go to the other extreme and pretend you're not going to feel a thing. They will either see through you or possibly even feel hurt!" And remember, just when you're beginning to glimpse the bright side, they'll be back for the holidays. And then the whole process of adjustment and readjustment will start all over again!

THE FAMILY

With both their children at university, Phil and Annie Say's Edinburgh nest has been well and truly empty for nearly a year. Their daughter Beccy, 21, has just finished her third year at medical school in Newcastle, and their son Jonnie, 19, is studying ecology at Lancaster. Phil and Annie are environmental consultants.

THE MOTHER

"Until Beccy left I felt hugely positive about her going away. You hear people saying 'I don't know how I'll cope' but I didn't feel that. I used to think about it of course, but not in a maudlin way – I was much more practical, focusing on making it a success and making it easy for her. She was obviously quite apprehensive and we talked about how you don't always make really good friends in the first term and that it isn't a good idea to jump in at the deep end with people.

But having been this completely together mother, when Beccy actually left it was absolutely awful. I didn't loll around crying my eyes out, but I really did feel quite low. There was suddenly this massive void. Suddenly it was absolutely deathly quiet except for Radio 4. I think then I did feel a bit redundant.

Certain times in the week were really hard. The worst was Saturday lunchtime when Beccy and Jonnie would usually only just have got up, but instead Phil and I were sat at the kitchen table like two lost souls. It took quite a lot of time to adapt to because the children had always been my number one priority.

I didn't feel low for very long. I began to adjust as soon as I heard how they were getting on. Mobile phones are great, you can live every moment of anxiety if necessary! And you can maintain a quite close relationship.

Phil and I both work long hours, so there's no need to look for things to fill the time. But you can concentrate on what you enjoy without being duty bound by the children's activities, like going for an evening walk or going out for a meal mid-week.

It's lovely when Beccy and Jonnie come home for the holidays. It's incredibly noisy and it reminds you how routinised you've become when they completely smash your new routine. That's quite daunting. Suddenly the kitchen side is covered in bits and the floor needs wiping – all the things you've become quite middle-aged about! But we don't have the argy-bargies we used to about Beccy not tidying her room. And I soon click back into worrying at 4am when they said they'd be back at 3am. You soon get back into parent-mode and you feel needed again and you do half the things they ought to be doing, like the washing and the ironing. It's pathetic! But the pleasure definitely outweighs the pain."

THE FATHER

"I was personally very excited for Beccy because she was doing something she had always wanted to. And Newcastle was just far enough for her to be away and genuinely independent but not as major as somewhere much further from home. Inevitably the excitement was tinged with a bit of sadness that this was the first major exit from the nest. She'd been around for so long, filling our lives.

In those first few weeks the house felt pretty empty. Jonnie was still bouncing around with his friends but we definitely felt a gap. I think it was harder for Annie. As a father, you are able to adjust a bit more quickly and maybe take a step back. I kept reminding myself that Beccy was doing something really great – and I couldn't wait to see how she was getting on.

We didn't make any plans to visit – we thought we would give her plenty of space to get on with her life and start to build her own independence. We kept her room as it was. Some parents seem to think that once someone's flown the nest, that's it: life moves on and you go on to the next stage. We felt quite the opposite. It was important for all of us to keep her room and her identity as part of the family; we want her to feel that she can come back when she wants to, but not feel that she has to.

Now there's just two of us we can be more spontaneous and flexible: go for a drink after work or drop everything on a Friday night and go for a walk in the hills. So in some respects it can be positive because it can give you space to refocus on each other and on other aspects of your life.

When they come home we click back into a good rapport, but life is moving on. You can adjust to a more adult way of life but still have the fun and the interaction that you had before. We're still pretty close. It's not inconceivable that they might even come on holiday with us!"

THE DAUGHTER

"I remember the night before I went to university really well. My best friend and I were sitting talking on our garden wall and I remember feeling as if it was the beginning of a really big step, the next stage of my life.

I was aware that my leaving would be hard for my parents, because we'd always been really close. Because of that I tried to be as nice to them as possible and think a bit about how they would be feeling. I felt it would be easier for them if they knew a bit about what I was doing – although mum thinks I drink too much so I probably tone that down! But then they're less afraid that you're getting up to too much mischief, and they still feel involved. I still speak to them on the phone at least once a week, and every day if I've got exams or I'm stressed. It's not deliberate – I'll be on my way home from the library and I just feel like talking to mum.

I only went home once in the first term, mainly because I was so tired and needed some sleep. It's so intense when you first go to university. Everything's new and you're going out all the time. So it was nice to be somewhere so familiar, where you could be really relaxed and comfortable. My relationship with my parents has changed, but gradually. They treat me much more like an adult now than when I first went to university, although at the time I felt they treated me as an adult. They've always trusted me.

Going home for the holidays was hard at first, because I really missed the fast pace and that total independence. Living back in a family, you have to let people know where you are and stuff, and I was much more aware of that. But now we've been at university a bit longer everyone's quite happy just to go home to have a rest!"

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