Coping with “Empty Nest Syndrome”: Pamela Roberts, a leading psychotherapist for the Priory Group, discusses her five tips to help parents processing the grief and sorrow they feel when their children leave home.
As thousands of teenagers take up their places at university, some of them leave behind more than empty rooms at home. Their parents, used to having them around, can suddenly find themselves alone in an unusually quiet house, struggling to handle the emotions this provokes. This sensation, a combination of loneliness and grief, is dubbed ‘Empty Nest Syndrome’, and although it is not a clinical diagnosis, it is widely recognised to affect thousands of parents every year.
A record number of 18-year-olds in the UK have accepted university places this year – 272,500 of this age cohort are starting at UK universities, up 7% on last year. Parents can be left feeling purposeless, lacking in direction, and unmotivated. Some parents have reported that even their pets can be left pining for the child who has ‘moved on’.
Parents who find themselves feeling low and anxious are definitely not alone, and there are steps they can take. Priory psychotherapist Pamela Roberts, based at the Priory’s Hospital in Woking, Surrey, says; “Any signs of loneliness are ultimately a sign to reach out, when you are ready, and connect and talk to people who can just listen. With compassion, grief softens.”
Pamela offers tips for people coping with Empty Nest Syndrome:
Remember, your children may have left home, but they are still a big part of your life
“Teenage children will always need their parents but now in a different way. Sometimes, if a parent comes from a secure position themselves, this separation will be easier to handle, but if there are insecurities there with the parent, these can surface and the process of separation may be more difficult. Yes, it is a tricky and challenging time, but be there to show the way – not to control it. Moving out is a hugely positive step for your child – it brings them independence and responsibility, and sets them up for adult life. Give your child encouragement and praise, and do everything possible to help them succeed.”
Meet up with people in a similar situation
“Grief accompanies loss, and needs the soft hands of compassion. Parents who are suddenly finding their homes ‘empty’ of children must be compassionate with themselves, and also look for compassion among friends and support groups, including chat groups, where they will find many like-minded people who understand the emotions.”
Build a new life routine
“Keeping a structure and routine is also useful. Have a new ritual to the days and evenings. Yes, this is a time for anxiety, as the teenager – the adult child – is exploring a new life, but it is the parent’s job to find resilience with their own anxiety, and not put that upon the adult child’s shoulders. Allow yourself to miss your child, this is normal and very human. But also bring in the positives, and how you will use your time to focus on things you enjoy, as well as an opportunity to connect with your spouse or partner in a different way.”
Make use of the extra time
“There is a huge change to your life, and change takes time to adjust to, but we do this better when we have good support at hand, for example friends, other family members, rewarding hobbies, volunteering opportunities, or a fulfilling work role. Try and re-engage with personal interests, including sport and exercise, or some community activity you may have dropped. But don’t feel you need to say to yourself ‘I just need to get on with this’. That leads to self-judgement and personal shaming, which can fuel depression, and lead to you just plastering over the sadness.”
Make use of new technology
“There are also some useful apps out there: Calm, Headspace, and the My Possible Self app which is free. All help with self-care, including online video therapy such as Priory Connect, can be useful if things continue to be difficult, or if you need more of a helping hand. Rather than viewing your child moving out as an ending, and a sign that their childhood and your role as a caregiver is over, think of it as another part of the parenting journey. It is change – and change brings newness, so this is a next stage in the life cycles. It’s a new and exciting chapter for both of you and the family, and the start of a brand new life stage.”
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