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Empty nest syndrome: Tips and practical advice for parents now children have left home for university

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As the new academic year starts many parents will understandably have mixed feelings about their child leaving home to embark on their new life at university.

Because the transition can be so challenging for parents, student living specialists, Scape, which supports students to give them the best possible university experience, has worked with author of The Empty Nest: Your Changing Family, Your New Direction Celia Dodd, to provide some useful pointers.

Here is some practical guidance and some tips to parents on how best to cope, and even thrive, with an empty nest.

Empty nest syndrome when children go off to uni
Empty nest syndrome when children go off to uni

Prepare yourself for the ‘goodbye’ moment

One of the first big challenges you face when your child goes to university is the dreaded moment when you have to say goodbye, walk away and leave them on their own. It’s important that parents prepare themselves for the complicated emotions that often follow – from sadness and a feeling of emptiness to anxiety and huge pride.

Simply taking their child to university and helping them settle into their new room is a good start in helping parents deal with the transition. You get a good idea of where your child will be living and spending a lot of their time and being able to visualise your child's new environment can be a real help in coping with this massive change in family life.

Empty nest
Empty nest

Dealing with anxiety and uncertainty

Feeling uncertain about the future is natural when a child first leaves home and parents often worry about how the relationship with their child will change when they no longer live under the same roof.

It doesn't help that there are so many aspects of life that parents feel they can no longer control once their child is at university, not least their safety, their happiness and their ability to feel motivated and work hard.

Scape's survey of parents with children heading to university in the next two years found that 39 per cent worry that their child will be lonely and not make new friends, 37 per cent are concerned about their safety and 36 per cent fear that their child will find the adjustment challenging and will take time to settle.

It's natural to worry when your child first leaves home, even though parents feel proud of their child's achievements and know that going to university is a great decision for them. It helps to focus on what's really important: that your child will be able to flourish and thrive independently as they begin their own unique journey in life, knowing that you are always there to support them when needed.

Embrace the change and view your empty nest as an opportunity

Instead of seeing your child’s move as an ending, view it as a new chapter in family life and an opportunity to focus attention on your own change of direction.

Looking after your own happiness and wellbeing is important when your child leaves the nest, but it's also likely to improve your relationship with them.

Children like to feel their family misses them, but they don't want to feel guilty that their mum or dad is miserable and lonely without them. They may even feel more confident about spreading their wings if they feel you are embracing your own new direction too.

Make a list of things that you’ve always wanted to do, but didn’t have time for because you were too busy with family life.

The Scape survey found that more than a quarter (28 per cent) of soon-to-be ‘empty nesters’ stated that they’d like to go travelling once their child has left the home and 26 per cent were looking forward to spending more time with friends and socialising more with their partner. Just under a quarter – 23 per cent – admitted that they would like to try out a new hobby, with a similar percentage hoping to continue their education or enrol on a course.

Making your own plans for the future can help parents feel that life is moving forward in a positive way.

One of the great things about the empty nest is the opportunities it offers to rediscover what you genuinely enjoy doing. When you're bringing up children they become the central focus of your life and passions and interests that are important to you often have to take a back seat.

One of the unexpected benefits of this new chapter in parents lives is that this is a great chance to experience all of those things that you loved doing before children came along, but didn’t have the time or emotional space for when they were growing up.

However, don't rush the process – shifting your attention to your own life may be difficult at times, especially in the first few weeks, when you're missing your child and constantly wondering how they're getting on.

If you are finding the empty nest hard, take small steps each day and allow the benefits of this new stage in life to emerge. Acknowledge how you feel and, rather than brushing your emotions aside, accept that you are going through a challenging transition in their life.

Talking to a good friend or your partner, will help if you feel down and if a low mood persists for longer than a few weeks, it's important to talk to your GP. It also helps to identify the times you miss your child most – perhaps when they came home from school or at the weekends – and to find new activities to fill the gap.

Above all it will help if parents can focus on the many positives of the empty nest, not least your changing relationship with your child and the the fact that you have helped them launch successfully into the world.

As your child becomes more independent, the bond between you will grow and evolve in all kinds of positive and perhaps unexpected ways.

It's also important to remember that, while leaving home is an exciting chapter in any child's life, they will still need their parents' support, possibly for many years to come.

So at the same time as you pursue your own new direction in life you also need to be there for your adult child, whenever they need you. As a result your relationship is likely to grow closer and more equal as you both embark on the exciting new chapters in your lives.

Survey findings carried out by student living specialists, Scape. Advice and tips provided by Celia Dodd in conjunction with Scape.

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