For many parents, the moment that your child (or children) leave home is held up as the pinnacle of parenting - that moment when you ‘get your life back’ and have freedom again. However, the reality can be dramatically different. For many parents, the days, weeks and months following their child leaving home can actually be akin to a bereavement bringing with it similar symptoms no matter how excited you were for them to embark on the next stage of life.
Many parents will be experiencing this for the first time this month with September being the month that many young adults move to university, leaving home and the security that it brings for the very first time. Other parents may be going through it for a second time if children who had already left home once returned during the Covid lockdowns, and are once again spreading their wings.
What is Empty Nest Syndrome?
Empty Nest Syndrome is a name for the feeling of grief after your children leave home (the ‘nest’). The signs and symptoms can vary from person to person, but typically they can present as similar to a bereavement. Loneliness, sadness, grief and a feeling of being left behind or not needed can present alongside physical symptoms such as loss of appetite, nausea or insomnia.
No matter how excited you may be for your children to take their next step, it can still be a massive jolt for you as the parent to realise that you don’t have that daily contact with your child any more. Parenting can be absolutely all encompassing - we build our lives around our children; the school run, hobbies, making sure they see their friends and completing school work, so when that ends it can be a huge shock to the system. Your children are a constant presence in your life, even if they are not physically present then things such as your work hours or hobbies are often still focused around them and their schedule.
How can I deal with it?
The most important thing to remember is that whatever you’re feeling is ok, and normal. Sitting with your feelings, both understanding and accepting them can help you to come to terms with it. We would never expect new parents to adapt to parenthood in a week or two and it is important to remember this when they leave home - it is a massive milestone and needs to be embraced as such.
Consider embracing this change as a transition, rather than a loss. Your parent/child relationship will be changing but that doesn’t mean it is ending. Your child may be less dependent on you but equally they will need support with the new phase of their life. Look at the milestones to come, new partners, new homes, possibly weddings or grandchildren and understand that without your support and guidance your children would not feel secure enough to take this huge step. As sad as it can be, your children leaving home is a sign that you have done your job as a parent well.
For many years your primary label will have been ‘Parent’. Secondary labels may have been ‘Spouse’, ‘Employee’ or ‘Boss’, and somewhere underneath all of that you might have been you. This transition gives you a chance to look at the roles you play in life and lean into being you again. Understandably that will look remarkably different to the pre children version of you - but now is the chance to take up new hobbies or a new work role, or possibly even volunteer. While all (or most) of your previous roles will still apply, it will be in a lesser capacity that allows you to explore yourself again. Finding something new to throw yourself into can be a helpful way to divert some of your free time that you may find you have now.
Reconnect as a couple
Now is the time to reconnect with your partner, remembering who you were before children completely took over. Again, it is important to understand that this may also take time - your roles as parents have been the primary focus for many years, but the sudden freedom means that you can look towards having weekends away without needing to worry about a babysitter or whether they’re wrecking the house or you can decide to go for dinner without needing to cook a meal for them beforehand or at least make sure there are the ingredients there for them. Many relationships flounder once the children leave home as it can often become a case that they are the sole reason for staying together, however it is worth putting in the time and effort to try to find yourselves individually and as a partnership before deciding to split.
As hard as it can be, stepping back from being in constant contact with your child in the initial period after they leave home can assist the transition. Social media makes it easy to check in on them without them being aware, but at the same time it can make moving on a far more difficult process for you. Have faith in the fact that you have done a good job, make sure that they know they can call on you if they need you and then do your best to step back and allow them to forge their own way. Keeping in contact is of course not a bad thing, but calling daily or messaging multiple times a day can prolong the transition process and make it more difficult for both you and your child.
If you’re struggling with your emotions following your children leaving home then I can help. Counselling can give you a safe space to work through your feelings, and give you techniques to utilise if it feels overwhelming. I can also work with couples, so if you feel that your relationship is struggling then again, I can help you. Contact me on 07305 920 437 for more information on my services or to book an appointment.