Exhilarated after her early run, Anna steps through her front door, ready to tell her daughter Isabelle about her morning. For the last three years, every Saturday, while her husband, Adam, is at rugby training, Anna has cooked brunch, and the mum and daughter have eaten together and chatted. For Anna, it has become the best part of her week.
But instead of music blaring out from Isabelle’s room, the bathroom left in disarray, coffee cups all over the kitchen, and yells downstairs to ask how long breakfast will be, Anna is greeted with a tidy, silent house. It’s ten days since only child Isabelle left home for university 200 miles away, and it feels like the emptiness is overwhelming.
‘Izzy may have left for university with a car full of belongings, but it feels as if she’s taken a huge part of my heart with her,’ confides Anna, a 51-year-old designer. ‘I miss her so much. I miss the laughs we had, the questions she asked, the favours she needed, the TV she watched, the lifts to and from her nights out with friends. I even miss her friends!’
Anna is suffering from empty nest syndrome, which can hit hard when a child – whether it’s the eldest or the baby of the family – leaves home to go to university or start a new job.
Empty Nest Syndrome
At its worst, it’s akin to grief. We mooch around our children’s bedrooms, lingering over the books they’ve read, smiling wryly at posters on their walls, even smelling their left-behind clothes for their scent. We long to turn back the clock and look after them at home again, and we fear we’ll never have them in our lives as much or in the same way again.
We worry how they’re coping once Freshers’ Week has finished, if they’re making friends, eating and if they can cope with their workload now we’re not there to chivvy them along. It’s the paradox of parenting – we love our children, and we bring them up to be independent so that one day, they will fly the nest and start a life of their own, leaving us at best sad, and at worst bereft.
Yet it seems this is natural and understandable behaviour. A Censuswide survey commissioned by Unite Students, which provides student accommodation in the UK, found that, of 1,000 parents questioned in 2021, 98 per cent felt ‘extreme grief’ after even their first child left for university.
Almost a fifth had cried uncontrollably, and a similar number had physical signs of grief, suffering panic attacks, sleeplessness, a racing heart and other illnesses. Three in every 20 said they felt they faced a period of depression.
End of An Era
Counsellor Louise Tyler, who runs her own business, Personal Resilience, in the UK, says: ‘Empty nest syndrome can cause sadness, depression, anxiety and a huge feeling loss for some parents. When your last child leaves, it’s a massive pivotal moment in your life. It’s certainly the end of an era.’
But empty nest syndrome doesn’t just strike the moment your home is empty – the anticipation starts long before the book list is ordered, the new bedding is bought, and the last of the cases are packed.
Jasmine Navarro, who runs a coaching business, NAVA, in Dubai and the UK, says there’s an emotional build-up that gains momentum as the big day approaches.
‘The physical tasks, such as packing belongings, can be emotionally charged as they symbolise the impending separation,’ says Jasmine, who coaches students through education and adults through life changes.
‘Parents often find themselves reminiscing about their child’s early years, leading to a wave of nostalgia. Simultaneously, they may experience intense worry and dread about their child’s wellbeing, especially if it’s their first time living away from home. These mixed emotions create a sense of anticipation and anxiety leading up to the big goodbye.’
When the time comes to leave your child in their new home, whether it’s a hall of residence, a shared house or a rented apartment, usually surrounded by complete strangers, many parents are left heartbroken.
Jasmine continues: ‘Saying goodbye can be a profoundly emotional experience for parents as they are mourning the end of an era in their lives. The home, once filled with laughter and youthful energy, suddenly feels empty and quiet.
‘Some parents may suffer from depression and anxiety around this time, as they battle with a sense of loss and the uncertainty of what lies ahead. Their child’s absence can trigger feelings of loneliness and isolation.
‘Many parents will feel redundant, as if their primary job of raising their child is done, causing a crisis of identity and purpose. Loneliness is another common issue, as parents adjust to the newfound quietness in their homes and the absence of their child’s companionship.’
So what can we do about this bittersweet pain of empty nest syndrome? Louise and Jasmine share their tips with The Ethicalist:
Reframe Your Thinking
View your child-free time as time for you, suggests Louise, a member of BACP, British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy.
‘If you’ve been busy for years juggling jobs, work and children, and putting yourself at the bottom of your to do list, it’s time to change that,’ she says. ‘Is there a hobby, an exercise or some volunteering you’d like to take up?’
Meet Your Own Needs
It’s now up to you to fill the void your children have left, says Louise. ‘Recognise that many of your needs over the years have been met by your children,’ she says. ‘If you miss your child’s music, put on your own playlist and own your tastes. If you miss your house being full of your children’s friends, start to fill it with your own friends.’
Do A Life Appraisal
Reflect on your own goals and aspirations, whether you want to write a book, run a marathon or learn vegan cookery, says Jasmine.
‘Re-evaluate your priorities and set new personal and professional goals,’ she urges. ‘This can provide you with a sense of purpose and direction. You’ll rediscover your own identity and aspirations, which will reduce your feelings of redundancy and loneliness.’
Accept Your Sadness
Rather than fighting your feelings, Louise suggests we remind ourselves it’s normal to feel this way. ‘If you’re sad, it probably means you have a very good relationship with your child,’ she reveals. ‘It’s a positive thing if your child is physically and emotionally able to leave home. You’ve done a good job.’
Best not to struggle on if you’re really suffering, says Louise. ‘If you find you have symptoms of depression, rather than sadness, do get some help,’ she says. ‘Talking things through with a counsellor may help you to work out if there’s something more going on for you.’
Make A Plan
Rather than expecting hourly updates, have a realistic agreement about how often you’ll communicate with your son or daughter, recommends Louise.
‘This could be a daily text or a weekly FaceTime call,’ she says. ‘Having a pre-agreed structure in place will help remove uncertainty. If your child is reluctant to keep in regular contact, it might be their way of coping with the separation.’
Share your feelings with friends who have experienced empty nest syndrome or consider joining a support group, suggests Jasmine.
‘Talking about your emotions can be therapeutic and reassuring,’ she says. ‘Seeking help and comfort from friends and groups would provide a safe space to share experiences and receive emotional support.’
Be There For Them
It’s important to stress that your child can contact you as often as they want, says Louise. ‘This is a major step for them so make sure they know they don’t have to hide any distress from you, and they know they can call you day or evening if they need to talk,’ she says. ‘There is plenty of support available if they need it.’
Prioritise Your Partner
According to Louise, this is a great time to invest in your relationship. ‘Parents can fall into the role of simply being partners in the business of life,’ she says. ‘Romance, fun and friendship can go out of the window. This is a chance to reconnect. If the empty nest reveals deficits in your relationship, working with a counsellor might get you both back on track.’
It’s not goodbye, it’s just au revoir, insists Louise, and it’s good to remember that. ‘University terms are short, and your child will be back before you know if for the holidays,’ she says.