12/11/2014 10:33 GMT | Updated 20/05/2015 10:12 BST

Empty Nest Syndrome: How Will I Cope When My Child Leaves Home?


Most parents feel a sense of loss when their child starts university, regardless of how tough those teenage years have been.

"I cried all the way home after saying goodbye to my son when he started university." This was not the confession of some tender-hearted mother, but a father who was a senior teacher at my son's school.

If they are the last child to leave home it can suddenly be very quiet. You no longer need to buy vast quantities of food, the washing machine doesn't run constantly, you don't collect dirty mugs from every corner of the house or listen for the key in the front door when they come in at 2am.

You might even begin to think that these were not so bad after all.

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Susie described how she felt: "When my daughter left for university I found myself wandering morosely around the supermarket with an almost-empty trolley."

Nell's emotions got the better of her in the kitchen displays at a DIY store: "I was horrified to find myself hiding and sobbing desperately as I listened to the store radio station playing a song that reminded me of my son, who'd just left for university in the US the previous week. I felt as if someone had ripped out my heart."

Lorraine Langridge, counsellor at Acorn Counselling Service, described how she felt last year: "I had mixed emotions – excited and sad. Part of me wanted to hang onto their childhood yet I knew it was inevitable that they were leaving home.

"It was confusing to feel both of these at once. But I do think that the lead-up is worse than the day when you say goodbye. It can be a very tense time for a parent and their child. "

There are at least two months between A-level results and starting university - time to buy the bedding, pots and pans, but also a long time to think about the loss you will feel.

Langridge explains: "It takes time to adjust, then they are back for Christmas and it starts all over again."

But how much contact should you have? Is it up to you to text or phone them at what may be inconvenient times?


Lisa described her experience: "I found it very hard leaving Tom, especially when I knew he was ill or upset and I wasn't there to comfort him. I heard a lot from him when he first went to university. It got less as time went on and he became involved in other things.

"A lot of my friends used Skype to keep in touch with their children but I felt it was an infringement into his privacy; he might not want me to see the state of his room and who was in it! We did use Facebook.

"I also learned to de-code where he was by the background noise which would determine how long we'd talk on the phone."

It's hard to know how to find the balance. Sandi Mann, psychologist and director of The Mind Training Clinic, has this advice: "Don't be too sad, but don't be too happy. Your child wants to know they will be missed but not too much.

"It's not a good idea to enthuse about your plans for their bedroom now they have gone or remind them how much you will miss them.

"You have to let them go and this means not being in constant contact by email, text, phone and social media. Resist putting pressure on them to tell you every single thing they are doing. Be excited and happy for them which will help give them confidence and self belief."

Elaine Halligan, Director of The Parenting Practice, has first hand experience of feeling the loss. "When your first child leaves home you grieve. I was stunned. It's odd as you know the pain is one-sided. The best thing for them is also the hardest for you."

So what advice does she give parents?


Many parents experience feelings of uselessness – as if they have outlived their purpose as a hands-on parent.


"It's important that parents take time to grieve and realise it's a process that takes time. For some parents it follows the classic pattern of grief which involves denial and anger before acceptance.

"Be careful of compensating by over-mothering (or fathering) a younger child still at home. Recognise this as another stage in both your lives, like when they started school. The solution is to keep busy, volunteer, commit to something new in your life."

This advice is echoed by Sandi Mann: "Start a course, find new interests and understand this takes the pressure off wanting to contact them so much."

As Helligan reminds us, "Our role as parents is to prepare children for independence. Having a child who is self-reliant in thought and deed is a testament to our success and how much time and energy we have devoted to that."

Use the time when your child leaves home as an opportunity for you to develop your own life. And hang on to the thought that all parents who have experienced these feelings agree on one thing: it does get better and you do adapt.

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