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Empty Nest Syndrome – what you need to know

Empty Nest Syndrome – what you need to know

So the day has come. Your child is leaving home for the first time.  Nerves, dread and excitement all competed like so many prima donnas for centre stage in your emotions as you bought bedding, saucepans and a doorstop.

Empty nest syndrome is a recognisable, usually transitory, condition that all parents experience in varying degrees each time a child leaves home. If your child is going off to university, concerns about their ability to cope can be compounded by the distance between you. At the moment, you know what your child eats every day – soon you won’t know if they’re eating anything. Will they be able to handle budgeting? Will they make friends? How often should you call, text or message?  Suppose they’re unhappy, or homesick, or their flatmates are a nightmare? You and many thousands of other parents all have versions of the same questions. And they all add up to – will my child cope?

It’s a good idea to talk about this before the Day of Departure. Let your child know that you have confidence in their ability to stand on their own two feet, and let them know that you are always there for them – whether it’s because they’ve run out of money, because they’re homesick, or simply because they want to chat. Talk about their strengths and how these will stand them in good stead. Talk about the things they are worried about, and think through some coping strategies.

The important fact to know about your reaction after the Day of Departure is that it may well take you completely by surprise, and that’s fine. One friend spontaneously went out and bought a new car (they had twins, so it was a double whammy), another suddenly decided to decorate after months of procrastination. Me? I cried. A lot. And I mean a lot. So much, in fact, that it’s become the stuff of myth. Years on, it’s still a source of family amusement to point out, whenever we drive down the M1, that on the fateful day I was still crying at every service station we pass. When it later came time for my daughter also to go to university, you’d think I might have learnt from experience – but I cried the length of the A3, saw her prom gown on her bedroom door when I got home, and promptly crumpled in her bedroom doorway and cried into it. It was silk. It was ruined. Stuff happens.

The point is that our reactions sometimes defy logic. I thought I had prepared well by taking on new career responsibilities and looking forward to doing some of those things you never get round to in a busy family. I really wasn’t expecting to react the way I did, but it was October, for goodness sake, before I could even go into their bedrooms without crying. If that happens to you by the way, it’s not at all unusual. Bedrooms are very personal spaces, and so the place in your home where you feel closest to your absent child. Bear in mind the Persian proverb that comes in so useful at every stage of parenting: This too shall pass. It’s a time when faith can be a source of strength, too. I found it helpful to remember my children’s school motto, ‘Entrusted to heaven’, as I gave them into God’s care each day.

Remember, the feelings are only transitory. The new relationship with your adult child, however, is not. Here’s another surprise. A friend warned me that when my son came home for his first Christmas, I would be over the moon for a couple of days, but it wouldn’t be long before I would be wondering when he was going back. And lovely as it was to have him home, I quickly realised what she meant – we soon find uses for the time and space that our children’s departure provide. Don’t feel guilty, feel proud of the adult that you have raised.

Why the doorstop, by the way?  Easy.  There’s no better way to get to know people than to have an open door. And the question of how often to text or message? You’ll soon get the hang of it. In fact, you’ll soon get the hang not only of living in the empty nest, but of enjoying your new-found freedom.

Gill Robins

Christians in Education

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