University: The end of an era, but the beginning of a new one too

It's a moment every parent dreads: your children have left home – now what? By Kate Hilpern

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The Independent Online

Sally Hames assumed her daughter's transition to university would be smooth. "I remember leaving her in Tooting, feeling sure she'd be fine. She was independent and determined and she'd travelled to India, as well as having lived with her boyfriend. Only later did she tell me she felt lonely, isolated and emotional that day we left her."

It's a reminder that even the most confident and assured young people heading off to university can be in for a shock. "It's so life changing in every way, but because we hadn't been to university ourselves, we perhaps didn't appreciate how much," says Hames. "But one thing I've learned, now that I've had three children go to university, is that parents can help, often in more ways than they realise."

Probably the biggest thing Hames wishes she'd realised early on is the importance of agreeing on a level of communication prior to departure. "I didn't want to intrude and, like all parents, I wanted my daughter to fly and be independent, so I probably erred on the side of not phoning or texting enough while she was at St George's, University of London. In hindsight, I would have sat down with her before she went and worked out together how often I should call and text."

Among the things Hames knows she got right, however, was preparing her children financially. "All of them have always done Saturday jobs and we had created a family dynamic whereby none of our children expect things, so we had a good head start. But before university, we also emphasised the importance of managing money well."

Sue Houghton agrees that encouraging financial independence prior to university is essential. "I was a great advocate of backpacking around Europe when it came to preparing my two children for university and there's no doubt it helped. You don't have to go on fancy Thailand trips or travel the world – just a month's travel around Europe on the train can do wonders for managing on a small budget, as well as self-organising, getting used to independent travel and coping with unexpected situations."

As freshers' week approached, Houghton started taking her children on supermarket trips. "I wanted them to get to know how much basic food shops and toiletries cost, so that they could allocate the right amount of money towards it. It was also a good opening into that all-important conversation in which we worked out exactly how much money they had coming in, including from us, and what their outgoings were. I explained that I would only give them the money from us on a monthly basis and I'm very glad I did that. Any less frequently than that and they are bound to spend it all at once, which doesn't help anyone."

Houghton was surprised that some of the biggest obstacles to university life in the minds of her children were details she hadn't even considered. "For instance, my youngest daughter worried about how to use a washing machine. Just spending some time thinking about basic practical tasks can really pay off, so that they don't have to call you every two minutes."

Houghton also learned that it's vital not to encourage your offspring to come home too much, particularly in the first term. "Homesickness is a difficult issue to deal with and I can understand why parents suggest popping home for weekends for reassurance. But I felt, right from the beginning, that it would be a mistake. Both my kids said it takes a whole term to settle and that the weekends are critical for forming friendships during that time."

But while Houghton had expected her children to feel a sense of loneliness now and then, what she hadn't expected was that she'd feel the same. "You go from school runs, busy meals and driving your kids everywhere to everything suddenly stopping. It's lovely that the fridge actually stays full and that there aren't wet towels all over the floor, but life is abruptly and horribly silent. I had a friend that used to do her supermarket shop when they normally ate dinner simply because she couldn't bear the quiet."

Houghton managed it by making plans – lots of them. "A walk with a girlfriend, joining an adult education course, joining a book club, volunteering, booking a weekend away with your husband – things like that can help so much, especially in the first few weeks when the days can seem really long. I joined the Citizens Advice Bureau as a volunteer and I learned Italian, and it was a saviour."

But while keeping busy is important, it's essential to acknowledge the change in your life, she insists. "Most parents in this position are middle aged, so there's this realisation that you're entering the next phase in life, which can be hard to swallow. But unless you do, how can you embrace it and make it work for you?"

Houghton felt so strongly about wanting to help others through this transition that she established a website, emptynesting.co.uk. "It covers everything from them leaving home to go to university to having them boomerang back home again," she says. "There are tips on things to pack for them that may not be so obvious, dealing with homesickness, how to keep in touch when they buzz off without a backward glance, and how to approach common problems, such as wanting to change courses. Then there's all the information for parents about how to manage the new phase in their lives. It took me a year to research and write it, and about a year to put it together. The result is there's a great deal of practical and emotional help."

Working mums are often shocked by how sad they feel when their children head off to university, says Houghton. "They think that because they have another focus in their lives that they will be immune to empty nest syndrome, but many are surprised to find just how much they miss things like the reassuring dumping of the bags at the end of the day and the cup of tea you share before they mooch upstairs."

Michelle French, whose daughter is in her third year at St George's, University of London, thought she'd breeze through the transition. "Melissa was rarely home. She'd been spreading her wings for some time, so I assumed things wouldn't be much different. But the first weekend she was away, I cried my eyes out. I got round it by occupying myself. I booked theatre tickets with my husband, lunches out with girlfriends and it did pass. People often say it's an end of an era and I suppose it is, but in time you learn that it's the beginning of a new one too."

French resisted regularly visiting her daughter, even though she was studying close to home. "I knew I had to let her find her own way. We did the preparatory conversations and then tried, as much as possible, to let her go."

The drugs and alcohol talk is one of the hardest, but most important of all preparatory conversations, believes Angie Lefevre, whose son has just completed his second year at Birmingham City University. "I sat down and talked to my son about living in a city, choosing your friends wisely, avoiding drugs because you can so easily get hooked, and trying to achieve that happy medium between study and socialising – and it didn't stop there. I made sure I kept communication open, so he knew I was always on the end of a phone if he needed my support. That said, I made sure he knew where else to seek help too, so that he didn't have to rely completely on me.

"I also put a lot of effort into making him realise that there's no such thing as a stupid question, because asking it early on might help you avoid a sticky situation in the future." The result, says Howard, was that her son is doing well academically and is popular among the other students.

Sandra Hobson, whose daughter is in her third year at the University of Brighton, says it's easy to assume that because your child is mature, you don't need to have these conversations. "Even though my daughter was really ready to leave home, I was aware that she would probably go out drinking a lot at university and so I wanted to talk to her about knowing when to stop without her mum looking over her shoulder. I also wanted her to be prepared financially, so we talked about how much her loan was and how much extra support she'd get, and then we divided it by the number of weeks so she could work out her budget."

Don't despair if your advice is not heeded immediately, however, says Hobson. "The problem in our case was that mummy's purse had always been open. So my biggest concern was that she would blow all her money in the first six weeks – and she did.

"Two-thirds of the way through the term, I decided the only way to deal with it was to be brutal. Now, she is much more likely to say, 'I need to plan what I'm going to eat before I say yes to such-and-such a party.' In fact, I'll often find her repeating the financial advice I gave her as if she's thought of it herself. I respect that, because now it's my job to step back."

"The point is, I think, that young people need to learn through their own experience, as well as your advice."

Like many parents, Hobson found herself really missing her daughter. "We have the kind of relationship where we talk about everything. But I remind myself that there is an upside too – no endless washing up and mess."

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