How to reframe the 'empty nest' into a positive – RTE.ie
If you’ve got a child leaving home soon to go to university or move into their own place, you’re probably feeling a huge range of emotions about the impending move-out date.
The long-touted narrative is that parents and guardians typically go through a period akin to grieving, but Dr Elena Touroni, consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic says we need to normalise all the different feelings parents may have about their child leaving home. “Let go of any expectation to feel a certain way,” she says, “all of your feelings are valid.”
Many parents report feeling sadness, anxiety, a loss of direction, a sudden identity crisis, but is it more common than we might think for one of those feelings to be relief, or even happiness?
“I suspect it is quite common,” says Touroni, but it’s entirely individual, and “will have a lot to do with their own history of becoming parents and what parts of their life they may have had to sacrifice”.
She adds: “If their children have been the priority at the expense of their own needs for a long time, this separation can be a relief, because this is now a period in which they will be able to prioritise themselves and their own needs.” And this can be both freeing and unsettling.
So, how can parents of teenagers fleeing the nest embrace the next chapter of their lives positively?
Let go of any guilt
If you do feel a sense of relief or happiness, it may come with a heavy dose of guilt too (an emotion that seems to be drummed into us as parents from day one). “Being a parent can make you very vulnerable to feelings of guilt, as there is always the sense that there’s something you could be doing better,” says Touroni.
But you aren’t a monster for feeling happy about a new chapter in your own life – 18 years of parenting is physically and mentally exhausting, an emotional roller-coaster, and involves a whole load of personal and financial sacrifices.
“Guilt can be a complex emotion,” explains Priory psychotherapist Debbie Longsdale. “It may feel helpful to ask why you can’t allow yourself to be happy, whose voice you are hearing in your head, and does that feel like a helpful response?
“Our responses are very often unconsciously learnt, and the more objective and ‘neutral’ we can be, the better chance we have of noticing and accepting our personal responses. We may need to ‘unlearn’ some ‘rules for living’ that served us well when our family was young – time spent rushing around and organising them, and even being the ‘helicopter parent’ – but don’t feel helpful now.”
Check your self-worth
Most parents will have felt a shift in their sense of self when they first welcomed a child into the world, and over the years, it may have become so intertwined in who you are that it’s difficult to unravel ‘you as a parent’ from ‘you’. Although you’ll always be their parent, your role in their lives definitely changes once they’ve left home.
“It’s important we recognise any links that have formed between being a parent and our own self-worth,” says Longsdale. “If we are no longer in ‘daily parent mode’, does that change who you are as a person? Do you still feel you have value? What is your purpose?”
Prioritise yourself again
For a parent who has organised their entire lives around the children, this new chapter will bring new opportunities, says Longsdale, including “more freedom, perhaps financial changes, and an opportunity for reinvention”.
It can be helpful to prepare and plan ahead for what you’re going to do with your extra time and energy. Longsdale says some people feel the need for an ‘early distraction’ – immediately throwing yourself into something new if you know you’ll find this time hard.
Some people will need an adjustment period too, or some “processing time”, notes Longsdale, “and that is OK. It is quite normal to feel waves of grief with sadness and tears”.
She adds: “Reconnect with your own goals and what you would like to achieve. You may not know what these are immediately, 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 big promotion they always wanted, or to get involved in more projects, as there are less things competing for their time.”
Plan a big holiday outside of school holidays for the first time in years or take up a hobby with all that time you’ll have no longer ferrying your kids around.
Make some changes at home
“An empty nest implies a void,” notes psychotherapist Willis Atherley-Bourne, from Priory’s Hayes Grove Hospital, “when in fact, the nest holds many memories, which are associated to the space.
“For some people, 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.”
But he suggests having a conversation with your child before they leave home about plans to repurpose their room, for example. “This is about giving notice, not seeking permission,” he adds.
Accept that your relationship is evolving
Not only is your life and home changing in practical terms, but your relationship with your child will go through some major adjustments, too.
“The transition is about letting go of one type of relationship to allow another one to form and come into being,” says Atherley-Bourne.
He suggests agreeing a pattern of contact to help bridge the change. For example, a phone call on a Sunday or starting a family WhatsApp group.
Above all, look at the bigger picture. Longsdale says: “Moving out is a hugely positive step for your child – it brings them independence and responsibility, and sets them up for adult life.
“They have been naturally pulling away from their parents since they were born. It is a healthy life stage, even one to celebrate, for them – but also for you.”
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