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01 Oct 2022

GUIDE: How to handle empty nest syndrome when your teen goes to college

GUIDE: How to handle empty nest syndrome when your teen goes to college

A social psychologist shares tips about staying in touch and giving teens space to make mistakes.

Parents all over the country have just packed their teenage kids off to college and may be in the throes of empty nest syndrome.

And although you may want to race to their halls of residence with a plate of healthy food every time you hear they’ve eaten a takeaway, it’s important to remember your ‘baby’ is now an adult living their own life, and you need to give them space and let them make mistakes – even if that’s really hard to do at first.

“These are no longer just children, they are people, and the way they live their life is up to them,” stresses social psychologist Dr Sandra Wheatley, a consultant at Potent (potent.uk.com). “You’ve made the decision to let them go, so you have to toe the line, but let them know you’re still at the end of the line if they tug really hard, and they can fetch you.

“But it doesn’t have to be that they need to report in or feel like they must tell you their movements – because they’ll probably make something up.”


Here’s how to negotiate long-distance parenting so it works for you and your child…

1.   Be realistic about how much contact you have

Social media makes it so much easier to stay in touch, but don’t bombard your child with messages as you’ll probably just annoy them. “Think of what your relationship has been with your kids in terms of regularity of contact to date,” advises Wheatley. “You need to consider what you’re trying to achieve – are you trying to encourage them to stand on their own two feet predominantly? How regularly do you need to speak to each other to actually know each other well?

“It depends on your objectives. Are you trying to just make yourself feel better?” she says to ask yourself.

2.  Talk to them

Don’t just wrestle with yourself about how much to contact your child – ask them what they think, advises Wheatley. “Talk to them about what they think would be reasonable contact – would it be embarrassing if you speak to them every week on a Tuesday at 6pm come hell or high water? Will they look forward to saving all their news to speak to you at that time?

“Or will they be left feeling that they mustn’t spontaneously contact you, that they must fly the nest and break free and not bother you?

“The sensible thing to do is speak with them. After all, what you’re trying to encourage is good lines of communication, so why not start as you mean to go on?”

3.   Let them know you’re always there for them

“It’s about giving them space, but letting them know you’re there for them and will step in to help if you need to, and that you’re interested,” she explains. “You’re not trying to live through them – you know they’ll be having fun.”

4.   Let them make mistakes

This is the hard part – your child is bound to make mistakes, and you need to let them, warns Wheatley. After all, how will they ever learn if not from their mistakes?

“The first year they’re away at university you’ll see them grow and flourish, and you’ll see them make mistakes, but if they allow you in to share the fact they’ve made a mistake, that’s a good thing – it should be taken as a form of flattery.”

She advises parents not to get too heavy about whatever mistake they’ve made, but by all means say if you think they’re going too far. “Expect them to make mistakes, hope for the best but realise there’ll be a few bumps along the way,” she says.


5.   Be their friend

Wheatley advises trying to move your relationship to more of a friends’ footing, but making sure it doesn’t drift too far in the opposite direction so you lose touch. “You don’t want to feel you don’t know them anymore, and they shouldn’t feel like they can’t share important things with you because they think you’ll overreact,” she warns.

6.  Listen

“It’s about listening, rather than necessarily advising,” says Wheatley. “You can ask if they’re telling you something because they want you to help solve it, or is it just because they think you need to know they’ve been foolish?”

7.   Share your own experiences

Tell your teen the sort of things you got up to when you left home (if you can!).“Create open lines of communication,” advises Wheatley, “and one of the simplest ways of doing that is to share your own experiences, the things that you and your friends did – even if you end up saying, ‘For God’s sake don’t tell Grandma!’

“Make it clear to them that you appreciate there are some things they won’t want to tell you, that they’ll feel awkward about, and that’s fine as long as they’ve got people who they can confide in if they want.”

8.  Keep things in perspective

If they’re not behaving the way you want them to, keep things in perspective – if they don’t touch fruit and veg, for example, they’ll probably still manage to live through their university years. “Rickets takes a long time to set in,” jokes Wheatley. “Yes, they’re probably going to have a terrible diet, but they have to discover [the consequences] for themselves.”

She adds: “Accept that this is just another phase, another evolution in your relationship. Through Covid we realised proximity isn’t about physical nearness, it’s about communication and contact, and that really is key.

“If you’re regularly in touch with each other and you feel like you know what they’re up to and vice versa, and they know you’re not fretting about them, that will give them the liberation to go and live the life they want to.”

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