29 Sep 2022

How to handle empty nest syndrome

This is the time of year when many parents are forced to come to terms with the fact that their children have become adults and are setting off on their own journey. For many parents, the ritual of the trip in an overladen car to university is a bitter-sweet experience: of course it would be churlish not to participate in your son or daughter’s excitement, but at the same time you are having to face the fact that an era is over and your own family life will never feel the same again.

Confronted with the reality of the empty nest, it is all too easy to refuse to accept that you are now the parent of a newly-fledged adult, and this refusal is manifested in desperate clinginess and curiosity about their independent life. Repeatedly calling your son or daughter, demanding regular updates on the minutiae of their everyday life, is soon going to feel oppressive and intrusive.

You will have to learn to trust your son or daughter, and give them space to explore their newfound freedom. This means modifying your behaviour in the following ways:

• Stand back and let go. Accept that interference in your offspring’s life will be met with irritation, resentment or rejection.

• Lose the habits of a lifetime, and stop treating your grownup offspring as children. This means listening to what they’re saying, taking them seriously, respecting their opinions, and resisting the temptation to lecture, tease or nag.

• As far as possible, keep your opinions to yourself. Quibbling with your offspring over everything from their choice of car to life partner will only alienate them. Everyone should have the freedom to make their own decisions – and, sometimes, mistakes.

• Be supportive. Give your sons and daughters positive encouragement in everything  (within reason) they choose to do – even if you can’t understand why they’re doing it...

• Don’t aid and abet regression. You may find your offspring are all too willing to return to the parental home for pampering, and are more than ready to regress into sloppy adolescents. This is a dangerous precedent, and will only happen if you are colluding with them. Instead, ask them to help out around the house and garden, give them tasks and errands, and keep them busy. Don’t offer to do their washing!

• Don’t let them take you for granted. All too often your desire to continue playing a central role in your offspring’s lives can turn you into a doormat. They can rely on you for subsidies, lifts, loans, and much more. If they don’t learn to ask you politely for assistance, and thank you graciously when they receive it, they will not be acquiring essential social skills that will be vital in their adult life.

• Don’t pry. They will not tell you everything, and you must respect their privacy. Looking at their text messages, following them on social media, snooping on Facebook, or peeking at their diaries is simply not acceptable, no matter how desperate you are to know the truth. You just have to hope that, providing you build up a good, mature relationship with your offspring, they will feel able to tell you everything in due course.

• You will always worry about your sons and daughters, but be careful about expressing your anxieties directly to them. All too often, your worry becomes an extra burden, and they may choose not to off-load their problems on you, because they fear your reaction. This may lead to a cycle of secrecy and restraint.

• Try, as far as possible, to take the lead from your offspring when it comes to keeping in touch. Your son or daughter may find daily phone calls oppressive, so it’s probably best to stand back and let the younger generation come to you. Gradually a pattern of communication that is acceptable to all concerned will be established, and you will then be able to play your part in maintaining it.

• Make it clear that you’re always happy to see them, but don’t beg them to come and visit (unless you have a very good reason). They may be very caught up in their own lives, and will see your repeated invitations as needy and demanding. By rejecting your obvious desire to see them they may make themselves feel guilty, and therefore resentful, towards you, and a dangerous vicious circle will be set in motion. Wait for them to come to you.

• Be positive. All the members of your family will need your support and affirmation throughout their lives, so don’t be afraid to give it. Compliment them on their appearance, their new house, their partner’s success. Tell them how proud you are when they get a degree, a new job, a promotion. It’s never a bad idea to show them how much you care.

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