Preparing to start university for the first time is exciting for teenagers, but can be extremely nerve-racking for their parents.
Not only may mums and dads be worried about how their child will cope living away from home, but they may be equally concerned about themselves, and how they’ll cope without seeing their child every day.
For those parents who develop what’s known as empty nest syndrome when their child leaves home, symptoms may be physical as well as emotional, warns Dr Mark Winwood, director of psychological services at AXA PPP Healthcare.
As well as emotional problems, such as feeling constantly sad or low, difficulty concentrating or making decisions, feeling you can’t cope, and irritability, there may be also physical signs such as aches and pains, sleeping badly, changes in appetite and having no energy.
Winwood says: “For many parents, the emotions they feel when a child leaves home can be quite positive ones – a sense of their child progressing in life.
“Yet for others, this can be an overwhelming and anxious time, where a parent may expect to be upset, worried or stressed and they may wonder how they’ll cope without having their children at home.”
However, Dr Winwood says there are many ways of making the best of this family milestone. He suggests:
Don’t be afraid of speaking to your partner or a friend about your concerns – it may help alleviate any worries you have.
Identify triggers that may indicate your mood is deteriorating, and this will allow you to get support from others before the symptoms take over.
Looking for other ways to extend your social contact, e.g. joining a club or even owning a pet, can help ease depression.
Remember that children can pick up on your emotions, moods and worries, so try to keep a relaxed, calming atmosphere around the home in the build-up to the move. “After all,” says Winwood, “it’s an exciting new chapter in teenagers’ lives and they may also be feeling worried about their next steps.”
Taking exercise is beneficial and often helps with sleep problems. Eating well is also important, so try to eat regular, healthy meals.
Try using some of the tools of positive psychology – it can be useful to identify happier moments in your life in order to get through harder times. A good technique is to make a habit of writing down three pleasant things that have happened to you at the end of each day – this helps you to reflect on the positive.
If these measures don’t help, seek professional advice from your doctor, who can advise on the best course of treatment, such as counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), or if you’re severely depressed, antidepressants.
Enjoy your freedom
Psychologist Dr Kairen Cullen agrees that while feeling the effects of empty nest syndrome is totally understandable, there are many things that can be done to put a positive spin on this huge family change.
“Most parents give themselves body and soul to the family project, so when children are no longer physically present, it’s no surprise that many feel as though they’ve lost purpose, identity and direction,” she says.
“But there are a few tips to help prepare for and to meet the new challenges and joys of being parents of children who’ve flown the nest.”
Find some new activities or pick up old (pre-children) pursuits.
Relish the fact that you should have more time, space and money.
Enjoy and make the most of family get-togethers, which are more special now they happen less.
Empty the house of children’s left-behinds. Offer them back first and if they’re not wanted, have a car boot sale or give them to charity.
Do as much or as little housework and DIY as you want.
Outings and holidays can be much more spontaneous and tailored to your preference.
Make the most of adult relationships.
Ask the expert
Q: “My 14-year-old daughter has become obsessed with taking ‘selfies’ – what should I do?”
A: Sarah Newton, a youth mentor and author (theyouthexpert.com), says: “It depends what you mean by obsessed – what most parents see as obsession is just self-expression for your daughter, a creative search for identity, a way she can play with her image, manipulate it and discover the person she wants to be.
“In most cases, this is completely harmless. If she was taking pictures of landscapes and playing with filters you wouldn’t have cause for concern – just because it’s her own picture, it doesn’t mean she’s becoming narcissistic.
“The challenge with selfies isn’t in the taking of them, but when girls are posting them for validation on who they are and how they look from the outside world, i.e. wanting ‘likes’ on social media. Talk to her about your fears, and ask her what she gets out of taking them – and if you’re still concerned, tell her.
“Make sure that every day you tell her one thing you admire about her beyond her looks.
“Most girls grow out of this phase when they reach 18 or 19 years old and settle into far more ‘normal’ picture-taking behaviours.
“See it as creative expression and identity search and you may be able to stop worrying so much.”