STARTING university for the first time is very 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”, symptoms may be physical as well as emotional, warns Dr Mark Winwood, director of psychological services at AXA PPP Healthcare.
As well as feeling constantly sad or low, having difficulty concentrating or making decisions, feeling you can’t cope, and irritability, there may also be physical signs such as aches and pains, sleeping badly, changes in appetite and having no energy.
Dr 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.”
However, Dr Winwood says there are many ways of making the best of this family milestone.
Don’t be afraid of speaking to your partner or a friend about your concerns, as 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, such as joining a club or owning a pet, can alleviate 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.
As Dr Winwood says: “It’s an exciting new chapter in teenagers’ lives, but they may also be feeling worried about their next steps.”
Taking exercise is beneficial and often helps with sleep problems, and 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, as this helps you to reflect on the positive.
If these measures don’t help, seek professional advice from your GP, who can advise on the best course of treatment, such as counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), or, if you’re severely depressed, antidepressants.
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 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.
She suggests parents find some new activities or pick up previous pursuits, whilst enjoying having more time, space — and money!
Enjoy and make the most of family get-togethers, which are more special now they happen less.
Also, empty the house of children’s junk they no longer want.
Offer it back to them first and if it’s not wanted, have a car boot sale or donate suitable items to charity.
You can do as much or as little housework and DIY as you want, and outings and holidays can be much more spontaneous.
After all, when children leave, it’s time to reclaim a bit more of yourself back.