14/08/2014 16:58 BST | Updated 20/05/2015 10:12 BST

Shrinking Nest Syndrome

A University Student Preparing To Leave Home For The First Time To Go To University , Sussex, England

We've all heard of empty nest syndrome, that time of life when our youngest child ups and leaves home. Depending on our state of mind, we'll either think yippee, can't wait to get rid of the little **** or we'll be constantly dipping into the tissue box at the mere mention of a UCAs form.

But what about when it's your first child leaving home and what about the potentially lonely and bereft sibling(s) left behind with only boring parents for company. Have you ever stopped to consider the notion of 'shrinking nest syndrome' and how it may affect your children?

Again depending on your own family dynamics you'll either be clutching your sides with mirth at the thought of your younger children being anything other than overjoyed when an older sibling leaves or, you may already be Googling support groups.

Clinical Psychologist Dr Rachel Andrews believes whatever the family dynamics, when a child leaves home it is a major upheaval for all concerned. "Any type of transition takes time to adjust to. If the younger sibling is finding it hard ensure they keep in regular contact and make plans for them to visit their brother or sister.

"Social networking does make it incredibly easy for people to keep in touch but it still needs someone to make the effort. If you don't Skype make sure a weekly phone call is arranged and make it a habit you stick with."

Leaving for university is a transitional flight. The prodigals do return because they get kicked out of halls during the holidays but they're also more likely to be further away, so no popping in for Sunday lunch. You may be surprised by the loss felt by younger siblings regardless of how they appeared to get on together.

"I never recognised just how much time Jack spent with Ollie," says Nicole. 'My recollection of them in the same room usually involved shouting and bickering but after Jack had left to go to Uni, Ollie was really miserable and said he felt lonely."


It's easy to assume everybody will carry on as normal, albeit with one less person in the house, but you may find that a younger sibling really does miss the banter and even someone to argue to with.


Dr Andrews suggests that we should try to spend extra time with the sibling left behind - even if it does involve taking it on the chin and joining them on the X-box or whatever gaming platform they tend to use - or maybe organising shopping trips for a younger daughter.

Point out the positives to them; it's far cheaper to treat one child to a cinema night and a takeaway than it is two, so make it happen. Spoil them so they can see an advantage to being on their own. If on the other hand, your children are of the yippee they've gone variety maybe tone down the treats and try and find nice things to do when you're all reunited

Dr Andrews also believes that it will help siblings adjust if you try to keep family life as 'normal' as possible so try to avoid changing routines. For example, it's very easy after cooking countless family meals to fall into a pattern of feeding the younger sibling first and then having a tray on your lap in front of the TV, but don't. You certainly won't intend it but the unwritten message may well come across as you're not bothered to make an effort any more which will add to their feelings of loneliness.

"We found Robert's absence most noticeable at mealtimes," says Nicky. "The empty seat was so obvious and my daughter found it really unsettling. She already missed Rob without the obvious reminder so I decided to move the chair into another room and rearrange the table so it was less obvious there was someone missing. We still all eat together there's just more leftovers."

On the other hand some families will find that friction eases with the new dynamic and your home becomes more peaceful and less of a war zone. There are also other advantages for siblings left behind.

"Anna waited a less than respectable 15 minutes after her sister had left before asking if she could swop rooms," says Rachel, mother to Anna, 15, and Lucy, 19. "I would happily have moved into Lucy's room just to feel close to her but her sister just wanted to turf out all her left over belongings and move her own stuff in. She always got on well with Lucy, but she didn't seem to miss her which surprised me."

Whatever the family dynamic, it always takes time to adjust to so be prepared and recognise it isn't just you losing a child or in some cases gaining a bedroom, it's everyone. Another option worth considering is to replace the sibling with a hamster - it worked for my friend.