Smart Living | Digital Parenting

Digital Parenting | 29 Sep 2022

Empty nest syndrome: How to cope when your kids leave home

When your children head off to college, university, or just move out, you may feel sad, lonely, confused or even bored. Here are expert tips on how to survive - and even thrive - when the kids fly the coop.

In a recent interview with Woman and Home magazine, Loose Women presenter Ruth Langsford admitted that she felt like her “womb had been ripped out” in the weeks after sending her son Jack off to university. “I was sitting on his bed, sniffing his pillow, and I kept his bedroom door shut so I could imagine he was in there,” she said.

“I truly understand the pain of empty nest syndrome.”

As teens across the country head off to university, their parents will be feeling the same stabs of pain mixed, perhaps, with confusion. You knew this day was coming, you were even looking forward to the freedom from picking up dirty socks and mouldy toast. So what’s going on?

“It is debatable if ‘Empty Nest’ can be called a syndrome, but it can be viewed as emotional pain parents experience when their children leave home,” says psychologist Bhavna Jani Negandhi.

How do you know if you’re suffering? “The ‘symptoms’ could be emotional distress surrounding loss, such as loss of role, purpose and control of their children’s care,” she explains. “Other symptoms reported are anxiety, depression and grief.

“In some cases, parents also report relief. Relief about doing their job and now their young can be independent.”

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Some parents may be more susceptible to empty nest syndrome than others.

“It is hard for a lot of parents when their children leave home,” says Ms Negandhi. “However, it could be particularly difficult for women who have had more investment in child rearing. If all your focus has been on bringing up your children, it is not easy to let go of worries about how they will manage.”

So what should you do if you’re feeling lonely in your nest?

“Face your feelings,” suggests Celia Dodd, author of ‘The Empty Nest: How to Survive and Stay Close to Your Adult Child’ and ‘All Grown Up: Nurturing Relationships with Adult Children’. It’s natural to experience conflicting emotions when a child leaves home, she says – sadness, grief, pride, worry, uncertainty and regret can all crash in on you.

But all these are healthy and normal reactions to this major shift in your lifestyle, she says.

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“Acknowledge that you are going through a major change that affects life on so many levels, from daily routines to how you feel about yourself,” she suggests. “Talk to someone sympathetic, who won’t dismiss what you’re going through.

“It can be helpful to talk to other parents in a similar situation, or better still those who have done this before,” agrees Ms Negandhi. “Share feelings and coping strategies with others.”

You never know, those people could be right on your doorstep. Nextdoor is a great free app that connects users by location, so that you can immediately find events and make connections in your neighbourhood.

Both experts also stress the importance of setting out expectations with your child.

“Try not to spend all your time thinking about your child’s next visit: shift your focus back to you,” says Ms Dodd. “This can take time! But like any major life transition, this is a great opportunity to make changes in your own life and rediscover dreams and ambitions that had to be put on the back burner when the kids were growing up.

“There is now more time to explore the activities and interests you really love and find fulfilling.”

Learn new skills

Always fancied yourself as a foodie? Yummly is an app with reams of new recipes and video lessons for you to try. Parlez vous français?  Download Duolingo or Babbel and polish up on your foreign language skills. Still stuck for ideas? Volunteering has been shown to boost our mood and sense of purpose, so download Brightest and take your pick of more than 100,000 volunteering opportunities, helping out in areas including education or sustainability.

Cultivate healthy independence

And if you are finding yourself reaching for the phone to check on your kids every five minutes, back off.

“Let your children know that you are there to support them, if they need you,” says Ms Negandhi. “It’s a fine balancing act between allowing them to acquire independence and being there if they need you. Check with them how they wish to communicate with you and how regularly, so they don’t feel constantly watched but at the same time supported.”

It may even be time to master Snapchat or WhatsApp – free messaging apps that are popular with the young and through which you can share photos, videos and more without cramping their style.

Ms Dodd has further advice on this front.

“Think about the time of the day or week when you really miss your child and find something totally different to do instead, such as a regular date with a friend, a new course or an exercise class,” she says. “It can also be helpful to have a list of treats and activities you can rely on to give you joy for those moments when you’re feeling blue.”

If in doubt, download Audible and go for a stomp while listening to a story.

‘Grief, relief, joy’

Most important of all, remember: this too shall pass. In her book, ‘Beyond the Mommy Years’, Carin Rubenstein claims that there are three stages of empty nest syndrome: grief, relief, and then joy.

In fact, one survey found that it takes parents an average of three months to get used to an empty house. Further research suggests that parent-child relationships often improve after the younger one flies the nest, because the day-to-day stresses that come with living together have been removed.

Ultimately, as Dodd says: “your child may have left home, but your relationship continues to grow and may even get stronger.”

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