It’s the time of year that many parents and carers have been preparing for: the moment when their youngest offspring (or only child) takes off to university or college. So much time and effort and anticipation go into this moment, what with all the highs and lows of results, the ins and outs of decisions and plans, and the angst about next onward steps.
For the young person leaving home, there’s a whole path ahead of new people to meet, potential to live, and purpose to find.
For the parent or carer left behind, the reality is that their baby has left home.
The feelings that arise from this sudden realisation that you’re now on your own, without your growing-up children to nurture, can hit you with some force. Your baby birds have grown their wings and flown the nest – leaving you with what is popularly called ‘empty nest syndrome’. While this isn’t a psychological condition diagnosable by psychiatrists, empty nest syndrome definitely has a cluster of symptoms that many parents will be familiar with once they find themselves on their own. And alone with their partner for the first time in a couple of decades, which can bring up its own set of issues.
Some signs of empty nest syndrome:
- Feeling a bit odd and lost, and perhaps upset and weepy for no apparent reason.
- Restlessness and not knowing what to do with yourself.
- Identifying a vague but persistent feeling of emptiness inside. This can be a sign of some depressive feelings.
- Frantically searching for something to fill the gap your kids have left.
- Concerned that your kids are OK, with an urge to reach out and seek reassurance from them more than is usual. This can lead to anxious responses.
- After years of being the person who looks after others, you may have a sense of euphoria at being free to do whatever you want – yet frustration at not knowing how to direct that energy.
- Wondering what will happen between you and your partner now that you don’t have the kids to distract you.
Some tips to help you cope with empty nest syndrome
- Realise that your children moving on is a loss and that your feelings may go in waves of sadness, anger, denial and bewilderment – especially in the early stages.
- Embrace your feelings. Meet yourself where you are, instead of pushing those feelings away. They’ll only come back stronger another time.
- Resist the urge to call your grown-up child night and day. They need time to adjust to their new surroundings, as do you. Allow space all round, and learn to tolerate the feelings that come up around that.
- Readjust your perspective on your relationship with your children. They will still need you. Just in a new and perhaps more demanding way. Remember to set boundaries around what you feel is acceptable for you and them. Speaking to each other once a week, for example, may be a healthy and manageable balance.
- Reframe your loss: allow feelings of pride and achievement as an antidote to your loss. Remind yourself what a great job you’ve done bringing up your children to reach a stage where they’re ready to take the next big step in life.
- Choose one way that involves focusing on yourself, rather than others. You may have more time to pursue work projects, or think about taking up a fun activity, or take up more social invitations. Life goes on long after your children have left home.
- Journal regularly and freely, to help find self-guidance, and to help you reflect on where you’ve been and where you’re going.
- If you’re in a relationship, then talk to your partner about how you’d like your lives together to shape up going forward. If on your own, in time, think about dialling up your social interactions.
- Accept that you’re in a new stage of life. You can look back and regret, or look forward to what’s new.
If the emptiness of your nest is becoming too hard to bear, get in touch with our team to arrange some supportive counselling sessions to help you through this initial period and beyond. Call 020 8673 4545 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss booking an initial appointment. Sessions are available seven days a week at our Clapham and Tooting branches.