At this time of year many young people are leaving the family to start their university adventure, sometimes a long way from home. The children who have been the focus of their parents’ lives for 18 or so years have finally fledged in a flurry of excitement and celebration, the culmination of many years of hard work on both sides. It is such an achievement to have created a person who can now live independently and make their mark on the world; yet for many parents, particularly if it is the youngest child, this milestone can feel devastating.

Reproducing brings meaning and direction to adult lives. Alongside career and other relationships, parenthood for most people with children is central to their existence. Meeting the needs of children shapes everything else; it affects how parents view and organise their work, finances, recreation, socialising and even diet, and sleep patterns adapt to the arrival of children. Nothing makes this so apparent as the disappearance of children from the family when they leave home.

For some parents this transition is characterised by a sense of relief and this may be because relations with the son or daughter had become strained. Even if the relationship was good, freedom from the pressures of parenting can be welcome and enjoyed as a well-earned break after years of selflessness. For many parents, however, at least for a while after the young person has left, life can feel very empty; the house is quiet and there is less to do now that there is one less to look after. It is difficult to resist ‘looking after’ adult children remotely, phoning and texting, offering money and advice or sending food parcels. This ‘over parenting’ is an attempt to hang on to a familiar and comfortable role when facing a really painful loss alongside a genuine crisis of identity.

The feeling of purpose and ‘knowing who you’ are that comes from parenting may be lost for a while when children leave home. Mothers and fathers can feel bereaved and as though they are in mourning, partly for the loved child who is no longer present, but partly also for the life they had as a parent, which must now be left behind forever. The loss of this period of family life and the sense of identity that goes with it can hit some harder than others. A temporary period of sadness while psychological adjustments are made to the new situation is a common response. It may feel more traumatic and overwhelming for others, perhaps leading to a depressed state that doesn’t shift; this is particularly likely if the parent/child attachment has been complicated by other factors such as illness or disability, or any form of loss or crises around the period of leaving or earlier in the family’s history that has not been resolved fully.

Children leaving home can open up old wounds for some parents in relation to their own childhood; there may be a confusing sense of abandonment, of being forgotten or not appreciated, a feeling of “what about me?” This can take the form of jealousy and resentment, expressed as anger or coldness towards the child who is going alongside the pride and delight you feel about their progress. Relationships with partners can be affected too, especially if one parent is perceived as more pleased (or less affected) by the loss. This can put a great strain on the couple, who are now left alone together for the first time in many years. Negotiating this longstanding relationship in the new light of childlessness can bring mixed feelings for adults, who may have lost sight of their partner as a person rather than a parent.

It can be very difficult to know how to have a life that does not revolve around children and family, even if it has been longed for at times. Big existential questions about the purpose and meaning of life loom larger than ever. It can be frightening to face the future without the ‘prop’ of parenthood to give it shape. Children becoming adults also means that parents must confront middle age and, ultimately, their own mortality. These concepts and questions, which are at the heart of what it is to be a human being, are all part of the distress of ‘empty nest’ trauma. For anyone at any stage, knowing what you want to do with your life can be one of the hardest things to accomplish. Used to the responsibilities and limitations of family life, the sense of choice brought about by the empty nest may feel like an unwelcome pressure rather than something exciting and liberating.

People feel that their distress when children leave home is trivial, something to be ashamed of and that sense of shame can compound the problem. It’s important to share these feelings if possible; just airing them can make a huge difference. Thinking about yourself as an individual again is going to be the project now. Grown up children will be part of your future of course, but it’s essential to enrich your own separate life too. This might mean bringing something new into your life, or it could be about deepening interests and relationships that already exist. Counselling can be a great place to offload and reflect on the ways in which your empty nest is affecting you. It can also support you to explore ways in which you might want to start to focus on back on yourself after so many years of focusing on others.

First published 19th September, 2013