A new university term is on the horizon, which means more parents and caregivers will be saying goodbye to their children as they move into halls and student accommodation.
It can be a disorientating time for parents, coming with a mix of sadness due to ’empty nest syndrome’, but also potentially relief their children have taken the next step and moved on.
The unsettling period can therefore take a toll psychologically on parents.
Priory psychotherapist, Willis Atherley-Bourne, says: ‘Making adjustment to our lives, albeit planned or foreseen, is bound to raise an emotional response of some sort.
‘There is no one fixed pattern for parents’ responses to their child leaving home.
‘In some respects, being able to speak about and share plans beyond your child leaving home can be a positive experience that may still be sprinkled with moments of missing them.
‘The getting used to not picking up wet towels from the bathroom floor, the bedroom that is now quiet and still, to the general sense of transitioning.
‘The transition is about letting go of one type of relationship to allow another one to form and come into being.
‘Similar feelings may emerge after each visit at the family home or upon returning from visiting their child.’
This is notoriously a difficult time in parent-child relationships, when there’s a disconnect over new found freedoms and behaviours that aren’t as compatible with the original home environment.
An element of compromise on both sides is needed – but doesn’t always happen.
As a result of this, some parents will enjoy seeing their children ‘grown and flown’ – though that can also come with a sense of guilt.
Dealing with guilt – and accepting change
Debbie Longsdale, a psychotherapist and Priory therapy services director, says: ‘Guilt can be a complex emotion.
‘It may feel helpful to ask why you can’t allow yourself to be happy, whose voice are you hearing in your head, and does that feel a helpful response?
‘Our responses are very often unconsciously learnt and the more objective and “neutral” we can be, the better chance you have at noticing and accepting your personal response.
‘We may need to “unlearn” some “rules for living” that served us well when your family was young, but don’t feel quite so helpful now.’
There’s bound to be a sense of sadness around the significant shift in dynamic.
Empty nest syndrome can help us understand this better.
Willis says: ‘An empty nest implies a void, when in fact the nest holds many memories, which are associated to the space.
‘For instance, a chip in the wall or on the staircase is a connection to a moment in time which was shared as a family. Despite being apart, the chip still exists, therefore the memory may exist, if we allow it too.
‘For some, decorating certain spaces in the home allows for transformation of the old into a new space or even different usage.
‘The main factor is to make change according to your own timescales and whatever you feel is right, which may take several attempts.’
Debbie adds some people worry about all the free time they will have.
‘It’s important we recognise any links that have formed between being a parent and our self-worth,’ she says.
A thought exercise to try
Debbie says to ask yourself:
If I am no longer in daily parent mode, does that change who I am as a person? Do I still have value? What is my purpose?
Putting yourself first again
This is another huge shift that comes with a child leaving home.
Debbie says: ‘If you feel at a loss, it can be helpful to prepare and plan what you may do with your extra time and energy.
‘Reconnect with your own goals and what you would like to achieve. You may not know what this is, so some exploration may be needed to try out new things.’
That might be a career change, travel, joining a club, and anything you’d put off due to children coming first.
‘Some people will need an adjustment period too though – and that is okay – it is quite normal to feel waves of grief with sadness and tears, it is an emotional state that just needs some processing time.’
Psychologically, parents do go through a period of loss, similar to grieving.
Willis suggests considering your trigger points, such as meal times if food was always eaten together. ‘These are all psychological adjustments,’ he explains.
Talk and plan ahead
This is a common experience – so share how you’re feeling with others, rather than feeling ashamed by it.
Willis says: ‘Speak with other parents who entering a similar stage.
‘Give yourself permission to be emotional and cry if this is what you need to do.
‘If possible, start a conversation about changes you may make to the home with your child before they leave.
‘This is about giving notice, not seeking permission.
‘Give thought to planning your time at home in the evenings.
‘Where possible maintain connections through physical or technological means.’
It’s likely your child will also go through their own version of this, and being open will prepare you both better.
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