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Life Changes: empty nest

I speak with people who find life changes particularly difficult. We experience many in our lives through family, marriage, divorce, medical circumstances, financial circumstances, death but for some accepting and adapting to change feels very challenging and can trigger anxiety, depression or sadness.

One life change which can be particularly difficult to process is when a child leaves home ... rendering the family nest empty.

The beginning of the new university year is upon us and for many that will conjure up a variety of emotions, but for the parents of a child who is leaving home for the first time the change can feel especially hard.

Starting university in Covid-19 times brings all kinds of anomalies that wouldn't have needed to be considered this time last year. New students know that "freshers" week is going to look and feel very different to the experience they were sold during their university visit. Lectures/seminars/tutorials etc will definitely have an online or remote aspect and students will be encouraged to stay within accommodation bubbles and have to hope that they like the people that they have been placed with. These are some of the anxieties I know new students will be experiencing as they try to picture what their university experience will look like ... but a child going to university isn't just about the child, what about the parents?

Parents feel anxious too when it comes to delivering their child to their new adult life: will s/he make friends? Will s/he be able to self-motivate and work hard? Will s/he look after themselves properly? Will s/he be happy? Parents often talk of the extreme internal conflict they feel: genuine excitement for their child but heartbreak for themselves. Not falling to pieces during the "stay safe, eat well, wash yourself and your clothes .... Goodbye" speech can be extremely hard for some parents. Journeys home can be tearful or feel heavy and long whilst mums and dads feel their loss and are forced to think about what life might mean for them when they arrive back home to an empty house without their child.

A child leaving home, whether it be because of university, work or a relationship is a life change that many men and women put off thinking about as the notion feels too painful. Perhaps it stirs up memories of their own experiences of leaving home or perhaps they have given their lives to raising their child ... so now what? For some couples there is anxiety regarding their marital relationship, what are they going to talk about now? For others their identity may have been wrapped up in their role as either mum or dad and now feel completely lost, painfully questioning what is their new role? Who are they now? Big mid-life questions come to the surface as there is a desperate need to feel settled and content but often instead people are fearful and sad.

Purpose is a vital component of our emotional make-up which creates self-value, for parents it is a big contributing factor, so when a child leaves home there is a transitional period when parents have to mourn the loss of their full-time parenting role before embracing what is to come.

There are a few things that you can do or think about to prepare for a large life change such as a child leaving home:

  • Let yourself feel sad for a few days, speak with your friends going through the same experience, you will not be the only one struggling. Let yourself grieve, distractions are good for a while but they only mask the problem; listen to yourself and try and share your feelings.
  • If you think that your relationship with your partner is going to falter without your child as a focus, try and discuss it with your partner, in advance if you can, and maybe you could consider the possibility of seeing a relationship counsellor to support you through the change as a couple.
  • Plan ahead, have a long-term plan. A child leaving home for college or university traditionally happens at the end of Year 13, there is a set time frame so it will not catch you by surprise; perhaps you could start considering your future when your child is a few years away from leaving school therefore giving yourself .plenty of time to consider how you might feel and what you might want to do.
  • Having accepted the loss and adjusted to your new home set-up perhaps this is a time when you can focus on your own needs and wants. Have you dreamt of re-training, going back to work, traveling or starting a business? This might be an opportunity for you to grow and put yourself first, create new purpose with you at the centre.
  • Prepare yourself that your relationship with your child might change. They may come back from university with different views to the ones they grew up with, it is very tempting to "correct" your child, but these are the conversations that build the foundations of your adult relationship with him/her that allow your child to become their own individual adult person.

  • Think about your own self-care, treat yourself kindly and don't belittle yourself for struggling to adapt to a different new life. Know that transitional times are hard but that they will pass and you will find your rhythm in time.

If you feel that you are not coping well with a life change, or it has triggered an experience from your younger years, and you feel that you would like to speak to a professional about it please get in touch.

It's good to talk and I am trained to listen.

Photo by Shannon Deans:

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