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Empty Nest Syndrome: How Higher Education can support parents and carers

Unite Students has today shared the findings of its research into Empty Nest Syndrome: the heightened sense of extreme grief that parents and carers may feel when their children leave home for the first time, which may be felt more strongly following an intense time spent with one another during the pandemic.

Award-winning GP, student mental health expert and author Dr Dominique Thompson shares her recommendations for how organisations operating within Higher Education can support parents and carers – who are now playing a greater role in their children’s university decisions – through this challenging time.

If you work in a student-facing role in higher education, it’s usually clear where your day-to-day attention will be focused – on the students! But, increasingly, the parents and carers of our students need more support from university teams, and perhaps never more so than when they’re struggling with Empty Nest Syndrome.

Parents may be feeling especially anxious this year, having been with their children much more over the last 18 months and being aware that new students may not have developed the usual level of independence and social skills they would have done pre-pandemic.

It can be tempting to dismiss ‘Empty Nest’ as a transient and minor reaction, but it is a very real phenomenon for many, and in some parents it is experienced as strongly as a reaction akin to a bereavement or grief. It is more common in mothers than fathers, but whether you are a single parent waving your only child off to university or a parent of four with previous experience of saying goodbye, you may feel profound sadness and a loss of your sense of purpose and value as you watch your child launch into welcome week and meet their new flatmates.

Parents and carers may, then, welcome a kind, understanding response and supportive suggestions from university staff. Here are some thoughts about how your organisation can help.

  • Recognise that Empty Nest Syndrome is a real feeling, and can be a stressful time for parents and carers. Acknowledge and validate their emotions, whilst encouraging them to be kind to themselves.
  • Parents and carers will need time to adjust, and it may be helpful for them to talk to others who feel a similar sense of loss. You may even want to suggest they create a Facebook or WhatsApp group for fellow parents of new students, in which tips can be shared for dealing with the loss, as well as ideas for how to support their newly independent offspring.
  • Remind them to take pride and pleasure in how they have raised their child to ‘fly the nest’ successfully and go onto to new adventures: this may help counter some of the sadness.
  • Acknowledge that their lost sense of purpose can be challenging, but that finding a new daily purpose may help, even if it cannot replace having their child around. Volunteering is always a positive and fulfilling option, but they may also wish to re-invigorate their working life. Everyone will find purpose differently.
  • Connecting with friends and family is vital for staying well for all of us, and this may be a good time to remind them to plan some fun or go away for a weekend – although not to visit their child at uni just yet!
  • Finally, it’s worth encouraging them to not expect to hear from their child all the time, or phone them too often – but, instead, to plan with their child that they might speak once or twice a week and message more often, just to feel connected in a less ‘planned’ way. Their child should not be the one primarily helping them to cope with their grief or loss, and should be allowed to explore their new life and make the most of it without feeling guilty. Putting this message across tactfully may be tricky, but is vital.

These ideas may help you to have potentially challenging conversations around ‘Empty Nest’ emotions, and if more help is needed, there are some great resources that parents and carers can be signposted to. Student Minds has a Support for Parents section on its website, and many universities are now adding a Parent Information section to their website. I’ve helped Unite Students to create a parents’ guide to Empty Nest Syndrome, which can be downloaded here.

Empty Nest Syndrome may be a struggle, but it can also be the start of a whole new adventure for Mum and Dad! By helping them, we help our students.

You can subscribe to Dr Dominique Thompson’s newsletter on raising and supporting your teenager here, while her private community for parents of teenagers, ‘Growing a Grown Up’, can be joined on Facebook.