Lorraine Kelly (left) and Lorraine Candy (right) discuss empty nest syndrome.
There’s nothing quite like the grief that ensues when your child goes off to university – a Unite Students survey of 1,000 parents found 98% felt ‘extreme grief’ after their first child left home for further education.
Lorraine Candy, author of Mum, What’s Wrong with You?’: 101 Things Only Mothers of Teenage Girls Know, knows this feeling all too well.
She told ITV’s Lorraine she felt “physically sick” – and indeed, was sick – the morning her eldest child left for university.
Candy shared a key piece of advice for other parents going through the motions, which admittedly sounds easier said than done.
“I think the main tip, and I got this from my daughters and the experts I talked to in the book ... is: back off,” the mum-of-four said on dealing with empty nest syndrome.
She urged parents “not to panic” and also to remember their children, while in their late teens, are still developing neurologically.
“Their brain is still developing, so they’re not logically processing everything like you are. You might miss them immediately. It takes about 24 hours for them to realise what’s gone on and the rite of passage,” she continued.
When host Lorraine Kelly asked: “Oh, so they’re on a delay?” Candy replied: “They’re on a slight delay neurologically. So don’t expect that instant, you know, ‘I really miss you Mum’. Let them find their way.”
“I think the main tip, and I got this from my daughters and the experts I talked to in the book ... is: back off."Lorraine Candy
What else can you do if you’re feeling down?
She recommends trying to reframe this stage of your life – while also accepting that, yes, you will feel a real range of emotions. And it’s perfectly normal to feel sad and a sense of loss.
The counsellor urges parents to avoid cutting themselves off from friends and family, and to use this time to strengthen old friendships and maybe even start new ones.
“It’s normal to feel sad but also it gives you opportunities to try things you haven’t been able to before. Feel proud that you have raised a child to cope physically and emotionally with leaving home,” Tyler says.
After years of putting yourself at the bottom of the list of priorities, you can now focus on establishing new social activities, hobbies and forms of self-care. If you’re in a relationship, it’s also a great time to prioritise this.
“Parents can fall into the role of simply being partners in the business of life. Romance, fun and friendship can go out of the window. This is a chance to reconnect and work on the relationship,” she adds.
And if you do start to experience the symptoms of depression (rather than just sadness), it might help to talk things through with a professional.
Some of the symptoms of depression include: continuous low mood or sadness, feeling hopeless and helpless, feeling irritable and intolerant of others, having no motivation or interest in things, and not getting any enjoyment out of life.
Tips for staying in touch
This week, a survey by Three UK, of 2,000 parents and caregivers whose kids have left for university, revealed that two in five (44%) worry their child is not telling them the whole story about life at university.
Meanwhile more than a quarter (28%) think their child is actively hiding concerns or issues from them.
Some of the issues worrying parents the most were: exam deadlines and academic pressure; homesickness and financial strain; and social anxiety.
It’s perfectly normal to worry about how your child is getting on at university. But also, you have to let them spread their wings.
Tyler warns parents not to expect lots of regular updates from their children, who will no doubt be very busy building social lives and studying.
“Agree a realistic initial plan that suits you both about how and how often you will communicate,” she advises. “Having a pre-agreed structure in place will help remove uncertainty.”
She also encourages parents to emphasise to their kids that they can contact them whenever they want or need – and to normalise that it might be tricky to settle in at first.
“Make sure they don’t feel they have to hide any distress from you, as there is plenty of support available if they ask,” she advises. “You could help them to access support, as it may feel overwhelming.”
If your child seems reluctant to keep in regular contact, you might feel anxious, but the counsellor says “this might be their way of coping with the separation”.
“Talk it through with them,” she suggests. “The key thing is openness and an acknowledgment of needs both ways.”
And remember, term-time won’t last forever – before you know it they’ll be back for the holidays and it’ll feel like they never left.