Empty Nest Syndrome kicking in? Here's how to cope

·5-min read
Sand martin, Riparia riparia, also known as bank swallow in flight, building a nest
Children flying the nest? It's not easy at first. (Getty Images)

This month, record numbers of students will be heading off to university, leaving behind proud but in many cases, somewhat sad parents.

While it may be a practical relief to shift the tsunami of bags, duvets, pants and pans from the hall to the Halls of Residence 300 miles away, it can also be a terrible wrench emotionally. 

The child you've spent 18 or more years nurturing, loving, feeding and worrying about is suddenly off into the wild blue yonder, and you've no idea what they'll be up to and whether they'll be safe and happy.

Unless you still have children at home - and even if you do - their absence can leave a gaping hole in your day to day life, one that used to be filled with listening, laundry and lifts.

And while well-meaning friends may chortle "enjoy the freedom!" and "They'll be back before you know it!" - and some parents really can't wait to have their home, and the sex life they put on hold for two decades back - others, particularly mums, will struggle to let go and embrace the newly spacious nest. 

First day at university for young happy female student in casual clothes with backpack on her shoulders. View from back, she is looking at the entrance of the building
"Bye darling! Don't forget to ring home every hour!" (Getty Images)

Psychology Today Magazine states, "the empty nest syndrome that many parents of adult children experience is not a clinical disorder or diagnosis. It is a transitional period in life that highlights loneliness and loss, but can also open the door to new possibilities. 

"Women normally suffer more than men do, and feelings of sadness may be more pronounced among stay-at-home parents who now find themselves at a loss."

Empty nesters may feel overwhelming or troubling emotions including sadness, loss, depression, anxiety and loss of purpose, and the resulting stress can be damaging to adult relationships. Marriages can founder without the 'glue' of children at home who need parenting, and mothers, whether they work full time or not, may feel suddenly 'purposeless.'

Watch: Empty Nest Syndrome

"One’s identity may need to be reshaped from parent of a child to parent of an adult child; this adjustment takes time," says Psychology Today.

But rather than finding yourself in your son's childhood bedroom every evening, weeping over long-forgotten teddy bears, or frantically texting "ARE YOU OK???" to your daughter at 3am, there are steps you can take to help you cope with your beloved child's sudden absence, and look forward to their return without counting down the days like a prisoner marking the cell wall.

People, Senior Couple, Indoors, Family, Love-Emotion
"Come on love, we can turn his room into a pub." (Getty Images)

Read more: How to Deal With Empty Nest Syndrome

Ray Sadoun. is a mental health and addiction expert and currently works for OK Rehab, a UK-based addiction and mental health treatment provider.

"Even if your child has been independent for a long time, you will have at least been able to see them regularly and keep a watchful eye on them," he explains. "However, when they leave for university, you have to let go of all control and accept that they are in charge of their own life now. 

Watch: What is Empty Nest Syndrome? A family therapist explains

"Naturally, this can bring about feelings of disappointment, fear, and grief. Though both parents can suffer with empty nest syndrome, it’s much more common in mothers. This is because mothers are more likely to assume the caregiving role for their child, so in a way they’re almost losing their job when their child leaves for university."

The best way forward, he advises, is gradual acceptance. 

"At first, for some it’s going to be very hard. Allow yourself to grieve rather than repressing your emotions as this will only cause them to arise later down the line," says Sadoun. 

Smiling mature aunt showing niece photos on smartphone during party in backyard of home
"This is one of her dressed as a traffic cone in Freshers' Week..." (Getty Images)

"It’s also a good idea to chat to other parents about how they’re coping as this will normalise empty nest syndrome for you. There are forums such as Mumsnet where you can offload your feelings and receive compassionate responses from parents who know exactly what you’re going through.

"Finally, focus on yourself. Reconnect with old friends, go travelling, or discover a new hobby. If you’re busy building your own life, you will have less time to wallow in your sadness."

As difficult as empty nest syndrome can be, he adds, it often changes both parent and child for the better. "As a parent, you learn to embrace a new relationship with your child and you feel an immense sense of pride watching them live their own life. 

Read more: This Is Why Parents Find Their Kid’s First Day Of School So Hard

"If you’re married, this period of life can also be great for you and your partner as you have more time to focus on each other."

Don't pretend to friends and wider family that you don't feel sad, he counsels, but "concentrate on yourself and to allow time to heal your wounds. 

"It may take weeks or months, but you will eventually feel content with the idea that your child is living independently. Out of all of my clients who have been in this situation, not one of them wishes their child hadn’t spread their wings."

Watch: Is it financially worth going to university?

banner
banner
Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting