November 01, 2023
By Dr Kathy Weston
On my evening scroll through social media, I am often captivated by the testimonies of parents on a particular Facebook page, established for the parents of teens who have gone to university. Their tales are normally penned anonymously and showcase the full range of emotions that are experienced when children fly the nest. Many pine, grieve and mourn the departure of beloved offspring and describe a veritable midlife identity crisis.
For this cohort of parents, feelings are (understandably) all over the place. For some, the initial delight, relief and pride that their smart teen was accepted into their university of choice can be quickly replaced by concern about how they will cope (the parents I mean!). Parents might have helped their teens ‘move in’ to university or college accommodation some months back, but many can’t wait until they return. Parents may want teens to be independent but secretly delight when they call for tips on how to use a washing machine!
You have likely heard of ‘empty nest syndrome’, which has been defined in the research literature as: “feelings of sadness, loss, fear or difficulty in redefining roles with negative effects such as depression, alcoholism, identity crisis, and marital conflict.” But the personal accounts of parents on this particular social media page give us deeper insights into this condition. They describe an acute emotional loneliness, coupled with sleeplessness, which is induced by a new lack of control and ability to influence their children’s lives on a daily basis.
Occasionally, students who have just departed the nest write into the group, anonymously seeking advice from other people’s parents on how to manage ‘still-interfering or controlling’ carers; mums and dads who request daily updates or seek nightly confirmation that they have got home safely. Sadly, some students confess that they are not coping well at university and fear admitting this to their family, whose well-wishing cards are still fresh on bedroom desks.
We can feel for all parties here. Parent-child love attachments, when secure and positive, are deep-seated, visceral, all-consuming bonds around which our lives pivot and swirl. Whilst it is developmentally normal for children to leave home, when one has spent eighteen years considering their needs first (in the main), it can also feel brutal. When our parental purpose is tied up in our children’s lives, of course it can be hard to find immediate balance. And what of siblings left at home? Family structure is reshaped. Siblings also need to psychologically adjust to loss of their closest confidante and/or regular sparring partner.
Ghostly, permanently tidy bedrooms can be gut-wrenching reminders that family life has entered a new era. Families wait for university or college holiday periods when there is an expectation of seeing their children again, but also acknowledge that there is a good chance that they will make other plans. The transition to university, college or into employment is riddled with emotional rollercoasters and requires the bereaved parent to be self-compassionate, patient and resilient.
At the stage around which young people typically leave home, other quiet changes and challenges concomitantly take place in family life; menopausal battles, mid-life crises and/or increased caring responsibilities for older parents all instigate a necessary recalibration around self-care and personal needs, purpose, priorities and time commitments. Yes, there are opportunities to consider all unmet ambitions at this stage of life, but it can be hard to re-energise aspiration if one is quietly grieving a loss.
The trauma of change can often be softened through time, newly established routines, redefined expectations and communication. The truth is all parties are undergoing both transition anxiety and an ‘identity update’.
Antidotes can lie in establishing new routines that feel energising and distracting, establishing agreed levels of communication that satisfy all and having confidence in the attachment you have with your child, the relationship that you have invested in for all those years and in their ability to cope. Rather than berating them for never calling you, perhaps praise them for being able to manage situations on their own. Instead of asking them to check in every time they get home from the nightclub, set them up with trusted mechanisms for safe travel. Show them that you are always happy to see them, but ensure that they don’t feel guilty for being away from you. As parents, the more we invest in our own life and happiness, the better our children will likely feel and they will have the freedom to grow up (just as we always planned for them to).
We can be honest with our children about how we are coping and managing. It is ok to admit being both happy for them and sad about not living with them. It is ok to admit feeling happy when they call for help, yet also puzzled when they don’t know how to do something for themselves. Everyone is trying their best and redefining this significant relationship in ways that feel ok. We can model to our children that when change comes, we adapt, we strive, we seek new opportunities and adventures. It is not a bad time of life to seek out coaching, counselling or therapy. Be gentle with yourself and with them. Everyone will have bad days. Our children will not experience consistently amazing days, smooth friendships or academic experiences that are plain-sailing, but that’s life, a life we have trained them for. Remember that they have been through changes, transitions and challenges of all kinds in their lives (as have you) and you survived those, each time collating new coping tools that have been effective and that will be again. No one is starting from scratch.
If it makes you feel better, apparently, there is a high chance that some ‘boomerang kids’ will at some point return home, even for a short period. A return home happens more than you think, often due to economic factors, relationship issues or mental health challenges. You may have read about a recent case in Italy which demonstrated that, whilst some parents might welcome offspring returning to the nest, other parents are having none of it! One mother was adamant that her time hosting her middle-aged offspring was well and truly complete and turned to the courts to support her efforts to evict them! Whether we have an empty nest or the nest becomes unexpectedly crowded at some point in the future, our relationship with our children cannot and should not stay the same. Effective parenting is about accepting our evolving role, accommodating growth and respecting the natural process of individuation. This works both ways of course!
Where there are transitions, no matter how small or large, there are always evidence-based ideas for supporting families to make the most of any move. So the challenge around change can also be reframed as a magnificent lever for personal growth, educational opportunity and social enrichment.
Although we may not want to reflect on it too much, our lived experience during the pandemic and the coping strategies that we applied at that time, as individuals and as a family, can be reused again through other expected and unexpected changes. Thinking back, what did you do to cope? How did you respond to and navigate drastic changes such as schools closing, work moving online, a reduction in our face to face social lives and new rules around distancing? We proved ourselves to be adaptable, able to manage, and capable of both reinventing and redefining our lives. We learned things about ourselves and likely have skills that we wish to retain and use moving forward. We certainly all became more digitally skilled.
When children move away from home in 2023 and beyond, at least we have emails, Facetime and other means of staying digitally connected (unlike the poor parents of yesteryear who had to wait for them to pick up the phone or write a letter!). While we wait for them to return to us, social media communities and WhatsApp groups made up of other parents with other similar levels of angst can provide solace, community comfort and opportunities for everyone to air their feelings. One aspect of these sites that I really enjoy is when parents have something joyful to share, like their 19 year old getting in touch with good news, or finding out that their child is finally getting on with their flatmates. It is encouraging for other parents to hear that students can experience similar issues and overcome them in time.
If you are an ‘empty nester’, remember to spend time in nature, read books, listen to music and perhaps delve into some poetry. I can recommend one poem in particular by the Lebanese poet, Kahlil Gibran, which respectfully reminds parents that our children must forge their own paths. The pertinent lines read: “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you yet they belong not to you”.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
Do you have questions on teen coping, mental health or anything related to adolescence? Join our live Q&As with top adolescent psychiatrist and mum, Dr Anna Conway Morris on 2nd November at 8.15pm (GMT), or with Dr Dennis Ougrin, Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Global Mental Health, on 29th November at 5.30pm.
If you are feeling a sense of emptiness, mapping out the things that you can control, versus those that you can't, can be helpful. Use our template for inspiration. If you (or your child) needs a little nudge to consider coping strategies that work effectively, take a look at our Coping Menu. Whilst it’s primarily designed for children, it can be used by the whole family. Anyone experiencing a recalibration in family life might find it useful to identify the things that are going well and those that could perhaps do with a change or refresh. Our family life audit activity can be filled in as a family and can help to ignite conversations, observations and goals about life at home.
You might have noticed that we have a packed schedule of live events over the next month or so. We’d love you to join us at any or all of the following:
Expert Online ADHD conference - 10th November, 9am GMT: We are delighted to be hosting an online conference for parents, educators and employers interested in learning more about ADHD, and how best to support young people at home and school.
Intercultural Couple Relationships with Dr Reenee Singh - 14th November, 7pm GMT: This webinar focuses on practical tools and techniques which intercultural parents can adopt to optimally support their relationship.
Understanding Girls with Dr Tara Porter - 21st November, 7.30pm GMT: Clinician and best-sellling author, Dr Tara Porter will explore why girls struggle with their mental health and consider the potential underlying factors.
Help! I Feel Like a Failure as a Parent! with Dr Gauri Seth - 29th November, 12.30pm GMT: Dr Weston and Dr Gauri Seth, psychiatrist and emotional coach, come together to discuss parental guilt, parental self-esteem and how feelings of failure can be reduced or overcome in general.
An Insight into Auditory Processing Disorder with Kate King - 5th December, 7.30pm GMT: Kate King explains what parents and teachers might observe and provides practical strategies to enable home and school to work together, supporting learners, reducing anxiety and building self-awareness.
Raising a Resilient Teen Boy - 6th December, 7pm GMT: Dr Weston will discuss challenges that children face following the pandemic including particular issues relating to boys and explain how parents can boost their emotional, academic and digital resilience moving forward.
Mistakes and Mattering - 7th December, 7pm GMT: Dr Weston talks about the importance of normalising mistakes in family life to reduce academic anxiety and allow children an optimal chance of doing well academically, providing practical tips for all.