The new academic year begins and fresh faced young people are preparing to start out at university. For many this will be an exciting new venture, a chance to be independent and build a new network of friends. It may be daunting, managing money, shopping and cooking can be a challenge and that’s before they take on the academic challenges.
Parents can also find this new stage tricky too. Packing the car with the clothes, music, books and precious objects can be a wrench even when parents have looked forward to this time. Watching fledglings leaving the nest can bring a tear to the eye of the most stoic parent. This life stage has been called “the empty nest” period and parents need to adjust to the changes.
Having put so much time and energy into supporting the children, with all the activity, noise and mess that accompanies a growing family, the space and quietness can be a shock. The house may be tidier and the fridge does not empty so quickly but many parents report feeling deep sadness and loss. The main family carer can feel redundant and uncertain of their role. The “empty nest syndrome” often coincides with other major life events like menopause or preparing for retirement.
Psychologists liken this process to grieving a loss and, like grieving a death, it takes time to adjust; around eighteen months to two years seems to be common. It is useful to have a plan in place to support both the young person and the parents.
- Prepare. Recent research with young people by Relate, the relationship counselling agency, shows that many teenagers feel they do not have the basic skills to see them into adult life.
Make sure they know how to do the key tasks – cooking, washing laundry, balancing money and negotiating deals on accommodation and purchases. These skills will improve with practice but they need to have the basic knowledge.
- Keep in touch. Negotiate before they go how and when you can communicate. Parents may want to hear from their child frequently but the new environment and opportunities can fill up the time. Sort out a time to talk on a regular basis and agree on how to manage texting, emails and skype. Parents often hear from their child regularly in the first few weeks and then communication can tail off. This is normal, don’t panic.
- Parents need to look after themselves. Parents will have more time and this is an opportunity to try something new, rediscover interests that were put “on hold” while the children were growing up.
Parents need to look after each other. The empty nest is a major shift in a partnership. Couples often find that the children have been the focus of their relationship and without them the relationship is fundamentally different. Accepting this and negotiating the new phase of a relationship can be tricky and will take time.
After three or four years of seeing their offspring at odd weekends and vacation times, most parents have moved into a new way of living. However, in the last few years increasing numbers of young graduates are returning to the parental home. Having a good degree is no longer an automatic passport into a career. This can present more challenges – but that is another story.