Navigating the university transition: Embracing change together

Congratulations. Your youngster is off to uni! As well as pride in your child's achievement, you might be left feeling a sense of loss and emptiness. This is often unrecognised as having your (nearly adult) child move out is a normal, healthy part of life.


Other significant life events, such as retirement or menopause, often compound this feeling. No wonder the feeling parents and carers are often left with is called empty nest syndrome. However, it's worth remembering that empty nest syndrome is not an official diagnosis or ailment. It is a normal reaction to a significant life change. 

Transition from school to university

Moving from school to university can be quite the transition for you and them; here are four ways to prepare, cope and even flourish through this time. 

1. Acknowledge your feelings

Remember to respect your emotions about them flying the nest and how you will adjust. Feeling a spectrum of emotions when your child leaves home is to be expected, including sadness, grief, loneliness, anxiety - even relief. Allow yourself to feel these emotions, and don't try to bottle them up. 

2. Celebrate their independence

This is a significant milestone for your child, and it's important to celebrate their accomplishments. Tell them how proud you are of them and how excited you are for their next chapter. Be proud of yourself, too! You were there supporting them through this. Getting someone through their A-levels can be pretty tense – you got them and yourself through in one piece, so give yourself a pat on the back.

3. Time to reconnect

Now is a great time to discover new hobbies and interests. You might reconnect with something you used to love doing when you were a kid: dance classes, reading fantasy fiction, football, travel. Talking of reconnecting, this is also a great time to focus on your relationships. This may be the first time it's been just you and your partner for twenty-plus years. Remind yourself why you liked hanging out with them back then. It's a time to develop relationships that matter to you outside of being a parent or carer and a chance to rediscover yourself. Please take it. Go for coffee, take pictures, have weekends away, and spend time with friends, your partner, and the people you feel your best around. 

4. Look after yourself

Taking care of yourself, physically and mentally, will help you cope with the changes of empty nest syndrome. Be patient with yourself. It takes time to adjust to your new family life. Don't expect to feel happy and carefree overnight.

Looking after your child's mental health at uni

If you feel confident that your child will be safe and well whilst they're away, it's much easier for you to focus on yourself during this transition period. Here are some practical steps you can take to help with this.

  • Work out with them how often you'll communicate while they're away. You'll need to find the right balance between giving them space and staying connected. Start by asking them what they want regarding contact, and be prepared to adjust this as they find their feet. You might not hear from them as much as you anticipated – don't expect too much from them as they settle in. 
  • Open communication is crucial. Regularly check in with your child about how they feel emotionally and mentally. Tell them they can talk to you honestly about how they're feeling. Recognise signs your child might be struggling, such as sudden behavioural changes and social or academic withdrawal. Regular conversations with them help catch issues early.
  • Help them find support sources they can access if needed. Universities in the UK will have a student support service. There will be links on the university website. Familiarise yourself and your child with the mental health resources available at their university, including counselling services, support groups, and workshops. Know who to contact both on and off campus.
  • Please encourage them to keep healthy habits around nutrition, sleep, exercise, the importance of a balanced social life, and self-care strategies. Sending care packages of the treats they like, little things that remind them of home, and pictures of their pet, family members, and loved ones mean a lot. You can also plan visits so they can show you the new people and places important to them. Take them out to dinner - do not underestimate the value of a free meal to a student!
  • Remind them that university is not just about academic success; it's learning how to get along with different people, time management, budgeting, problem-solving and solution-finding. This is a time of change and can feel overwhelming. Transitioning to university brings challenges such as homesickness, difficulty making new friends, and academic pressure. These are to be expected and are usually short-term.

Talking about your feelings with a counsellor can help with empty nest syndrome. I'll help you see the parenting wood for the trees and give you a different perspective and practical coping strategies. If this has resonated with you, why not get in touch to see how therapy with me can help? I am based between Brighton and Eastbourne in East Sussex and provide counselling therapy online, which means we can work together wherever you are.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Seaford, East Sussex, BN25
Written by Jennifer Warwick, MSc Psych, BACP Registered | Counsellor and Parenting Expert
Seaford, East Sussex, BN25

I am a BACP registered counsellor working online. I work with people who struggle to balance work, home and family life. People constantly rush, looking after others over themselves and are exhausted. I specialise in supporting parents and carers as they navigate their child's tween and teenage years. Contact me for an introductory chat by phone.

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