(Alamy/PA)
(Alamy/PA)

Almost half of parents say they have empty nest syndrome – 7 ways to cope

As teens start university for the first time, many parents are feeling bereft. A psychotherapist explains the best ways to deal with an empty nest.

Lisa Salmon
Wednesday 22 September 2021 13:24

As excited teenagers embark on their first term at university, they’ll probably have little time to think about the poor parents they left at home.

But those mums and dads are already missing their kids – new research by  Sky Mobile has found almost half (47%) of British parents whose children have just started university are already fretting about having an empty nest, and 41% say they’d like their student kids to contact them more often.

The harsh reality, of course, is that parents have to loosen the ties with their grown-up kids once they flee the nest – but that’s not always easy, and some mums and dads are feeling very sad at the moment, with most (94%) admitting they’re not quite ready for the enforced peace and quiet.

So, what’s the best way for parents to cope with their empty nest angst? Psychotherapist Lucy Beresford, author of Happy Relationships at Home, Work & Play, says the bottom line is that parents have to learn to let go as best they can.

1. Acknowledge your feelings

“This is the beginning of something exciting for your child, but it’s the end of an era for you, and it can bring feelings of rejection and a loss of identity and feeling that you’re no longer a mum or a dad and your child will no longer need your advice. There can be really big fears about being irrelevant,” says Beresford.

“You haven’t lost a child completely, but you have lost the child that they once were and you now have a new role – it might be an even bigger role, that’s up to you! But you have to acknowledge the change.“

 2.     Fill your time

It’s important to try to take your mind off your feelings by doing other things, says Beresford. “Try to fill your time with lots of other things, otherwise you’ll find yourself constantly emailing and WhatsApping them,” she says.

She suggests empty nesters can fill their time by making new friends, reconnecting with old ones, getting a part-time job if they’re not already working, taking up a new hobby, getting a dog – if you have the time for one – or exercising. “If you’ve got something new in your life you’ll have something to talk to your child about,” she points out.

3.     Don’t make your child worry about you

Beresford says it can be extremely dispiriting for young people if they feel their parents are moping about them leaving home instead of getting on with their lives.

“There’s something very unattractive about feeling your parents are stuck and they can only live through you. A lot of parents run the risk of pushing their children away if they don’t let them go healthily. Parents need to put a brave face on it.”

4.      Tackle physical and emotional symptoms

As well as emotional problems such as feeling constantly sad or low and being irritable, there may be physical signs linked to empty nest syndrome including aches and pains, sleeping badly, changes in appetite and having no energy.

“I’ve worked with patients whose children have left home for university and they get depressed, lose their appetite or even overeat to compensate for what they perceive to be a lack of love,” says Beresford. “The relationship with their child can really go into decline as a result of them feeling so bereft.”

She says parents need to acknowledge their symptoms may be connected to their child leaving home, and see their GP if they’re unsure or if they feel they need more help.

5.      Talk about it

Talk about how you feel with friends and family, or other parents that may be going through the same thing.

“If you put it out there, even in a jokey manner, and say it’s really tough, you’d be surprised at how many people say they’re finding it hard too,” says Beresford. “In the old days it’d be the mother who was sobbing as she sends her child off, but now I think it’s mums and dads too. You need the support of your friends around you, because they’ll know what you’re going through.”

6.      Watch out for triggers

Birthdays and family events may make you feel worse about your child not being at home any more, and tasks such as repurposing your child’s old room could make you feel sad.

“When you start clearing out your child’s room because you want to use it for something else, that can be really painful,” says Beresford. “Even little things like a particular day you used to do something with your child can trigger sad feelings, and you need to be prepared for that.”

7.      Don’t hassle your child

The Sky Mobile research found nearly a third (32%) of parents expect daily calls from their kids, weekly check-ins are wanted by 31% of mums and dads, and a more demanding 21% want contact at least three to five times a week.

But Beresford warns: “You’ll end up with a healthier relationship with your child if you bite the bullet and just acknowledge that you have to let them go. It’s easy to say, but it’s really tough, as the ease with which parents can contact their children these days actually makes it harder to let go. This is the time to reconnect with other parts of you, even though you might not want to.”

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