Many parents feel mixed emotions when their child starts university. If your child is about to leave home for a new life as a student, you'll no doubt feel happy that they're embarking on an exciting new venture. At the same time, you may also be feeling a sense of sadness.

These mixed feelings are common and you may be experiencing something called ‘empty nest syndrome'.

What is empty nest syndrome?

Empty nest syndrome is a term coined to describe the feelings of loneliness and sadness some parents experience when their children grow up and leave home. Some common emotions you may experience include:

  • Feelings of sadness, loss or grief
  • Feeling like you have a lack of purpose
  • Having a sense of loneliness
  • Being worried about your child's safety or ability to look after themselves

Empty nest syndrome is more common than you may think. UK charity Family Lives says it receives a spike in calls from anxious parents at the beginning of term. Many worry about their child and how they will cope with being away from home, while others are troubled by the idea their relationship with their partner might suffer now they're on their own again.

Smoothing the transition

If your child is starting student life soon, here are some of the things you can do to make the transition from being an empty nester to having a new zest for life as easy as possible:

Talk to other empty nesters

If your child is about to leave for university, you probably know other parents who are in the same boat. If you do, talking to them about your feelings can help you understand that you're not alone. Getting things off your chest and acknowledging how you feel can bring immediate relief too, especially if you can speak to someone who knows what you're going through.

Reconnect as a couple

Many parents struggle with empty nest syndrome because they feel they've lost touch with their partner over the years – and now all of a sudden it's just the 2 of them. If this happens to you, don't keep it to yourself, tell your partner how you feel.

With all that extra privacy in the house, you can start to rekindle your relationship and get to know one another again. Try doing things you used to do for fun before your family came along, such as having more evenings out or more weekends away. Or you could finally take that trip of a lifetime you've always dreamt of.

It may feel strange when you start doing things for yourselves after decades of putting your children first, but having more quality time together should do wonders for your relationship.

Take some time out

Getting your child ready for university can be a busy time. Preparing them for an independent life means making sure they can cook for themselves, do their own laundry and lots more. So when the day finally comes, give yourself permission to take it easy for a week or two. Without any children to look after you can eat whatever you want, sleep in at the weekend and forget about washing and ironing. Indulge yourself – it could help you start to appreciate your new-found freedom.

Delay any drastic changes

Once your children have left home you may be tempted to make changes, such as moving house for instance. But while it may feel a big part of your life is coming to an end, take the time to fully adjust to your new situation before you make any major decisions.

Get active

Being more physically active is a great way to boost your mood as it helps your body release 'feel-good' hormones called endorphins. Try to take up active leisure pursuits that happen outdoors, as studies suggest there's a positive relationship between exposure to nature and positive mental health. If you can be moderately active for at least 150 minutes a week, you'll improve your physical health too (read Ways to be more active for more details).

Try not to pester

Even when you live apart you can still be close to your children. Today's technology means it's never been easier to stay in touch by phone, email, text and video chat.

When your child first leaves they'll probably want to stay in touch regularly too. But it's important to give them space to adjust to their new life, so try to avoid smothering them by constantly monitoring their social media or calling them too often.

While your initial outlook may be gloomy when your last child leaves, you'll soon start seeing the positives. You've done a great job raising your family, but now it's your time.

How CABA can help

Everything we do at CABA is underpinned by our commitment to provide lifelong support to past and present ICAEW members, ACA students, past and present ICAEW staff and their close families. All of our services are free, impartial and strictly confidential.