Grown and flown? When your children have left home there is some psychological readjustment to be done - and possibly some emotional turmoil to contend with.
Two Priory experts offer their advice:
Some parents feel a sense of loss but others want their lives back. Is that common?
Priory psychotherapist Willis Atherley-Bourne, based at the Priory’s Hayes Grove Hospital in Kent, says “Making adjustment to our lives, albeit planned or foreseen is bound to raise an emotional response of some sort. There is no one fixed pattern for parents’ responses to their child leaving home. In some respects, being able to speak about and share plans beyond your child leaving home can be a positive experience that may still be sprinkled with moments of missing them. The getting used to not picking up wet towels from the bathroom floor, the bedroom that is now quiet and still, to the general sense of transitioning. The transition is about letting go of one type of relationship to allow another one to form and come into being. Similar feelings may emerge after each visit at the family home or upon returning from visiting their child.”
How do you let go of the guilt you might feel wanting to see your child ‘grown and flown’?
“An empty nest implies a void, when in fact the nest holds many memories, which are associated to the space. For instance, a chip in the wall or on the staircase is a connection to a moment in time which was shared as a family. Despite being apart, the chip still exists, therefore the memory may exist, if we allow it too. Freedom is what we do with the memories we hold. For some, decorating certain spaces in the home allows for transformation of the old into a new space or even different usage. The main factor is to make change according to your own timescales and whatever you feel is right, which may take several attempts.”
How do you put yourself first again?
“Psychologically, parents go through a period of loss, akin to grieving; however, in this instance the aspect of bereavement is removed. Feelings of missing the child may be present, recalling conversations, hearing the voice of or even glimpsing the child’s shape around the home. These are all normal parts of a child leaving home. They are missed from the space they once occupied. Agreeing a pattern of contact may assist in bridging the change by considering when contact might be had. For instance, a phone call on a Sunday or having a family social media group, etc. Food often carries significance in many cultures, therefore meal time may need to be considered as time of discomfort after your child has left home. There will be a need to shift the routines around meal times, cooking smaller portions, eating alone or without your child. These are all psychological adjustments.”
Any practical tips for embracing the next stage of life?
“Speak with other parents who entering a similar stage. Give yourself permission to be emotional and cry if this is what you need to do. If possible, start a conversation about changes you may make to the home with your child before they leave. This is about giving notice, not seeking permission. Give thought to planning your time at home in the evenings. Encourage your child to make meals for themselves from time to time, and you do the same to allow yourself to experience eating with them. Where possible maintain connections through physical or technological means.
Debbie Longsdale, psychotherapist and Priory Therapy Services Director, adds:
“Guilt can be a complex emotion. It may feel helpful to ask why you can’t allow yourself to be happy, whose voice are you hearing in your head, and does that feel a helpful response? Our responses are very often unconsciously learnt and the more objective and ‘neutral’ we can be, the better chance you have at noticing and accepting your personal response. We may need to ‘unlearn’ some ‘rules for living’ that served us well when your family was young, but don’t feel quite so helpful now.
“Some people worry about all the time they find they now have. It’s important we recognise any links that have formed between being a parent and our self-worth. If we are no longer in ‘daily parent mode’ does that change who I am as a person? Do I still have value? What is my purpose?’
Should you plan ahead?
“It can be helpful to prepare and plan what you may do with your extra time and energy. Early distraction for those who find it hard can be very helpful. Reconnect with your own goals and what you would like to achieve. You may not know what this is, so some exploration may be needed to try out new things. Equally for those with established careers, some find it an opportunity to go for that promotion they always wanted, or to get involved in more projects, as there are less things competing for their time. Or perhaps plan that big holiday outside of school holidays and go to somewhere new. Some people will need an adjustment period too though – and that is okay – it is quite normal to feel waves of grief with sadness and tears, it is an emotional state that just needs some processing time.”