The complex emotions of the empty nest

It's that time of year when parents are sending their youngsters to university or college and although it is a positive move, the reality of an empty nest is daunting for many. Even though recently you may have had a somewhat surly teenager who only seeks your company when unwell or in need of food or money, the prospect of leaving them in a totally strange place where everyone is a stranger can feel very emotional.  


I have been feeling cool, calm and collected about the whole thing but as the day of departure looms I can feel the tears beginning to form. I am saying to myself these are not sad tears. These are emotional tears and they will need to come out. They are normal and healthy.

I am hoping they can wait until after I have left the campus (or I can have a good bawl before we go) because it is very important that our children don’t see us parents as distressed when we leave them. It may give them the message that we are leaving them in a ‘dangerous’ place and we fear for them.  

We need to show them that we are optimistic about their new adventure and we have confidence in them to manage the new challenges they face. Truthfully we may well fear for them or, perhaps more accurately, we fear for ourselves. Our young adults have enough to deal with - perhaps cooking, washing clothes etc. for the first time as well as learning how to study at an advanced level, making new friends, keeping track of time tables and managing a budget. They don't need to worry about us.  

We are also lucky that now we can see them virtually via the internet and be reassured that they are looking after themselves, catching up on what they are up to. What they choose to share with us, that is.  

It is also important to recognise that parenting is a role and although it's not a role we can resign from, it changes as our children become more independent.

Where is all our creative and nurturing energy going to go?

In my case I have signed up for some new classes and I am trying to be patient with myself and accept that this is a huge transition and some self-care is called for. This is also a transition for parents who are together in a relationship as the dynamic reverts back to the couple or the couple and a younger child or children.

Just as the birth of a child can be disruptive to the couple relationship and requires major adaptation, no matter how much a child may have been wanted, so too can the inaugural fledgling flight of a child cause us to look at partners in a new light (and one which may not always be flattering).  

You have shared parenting as a joint interest and activity and you may wonder how your relationship is going to fare as your roles change and you adapt to the ‘empty nest’.  Single parents may find themselves feeling very lonely and isolated.  

Acknowledging the emotion and accepting it as normal is key. Give your feelings space and kind attention and talk them through with partners, friends or a qualified counsellor or psychotherapist. Having children is a series of little losses but sending them off to university is one of the large losses or perhaps view it as a job well done. Remembering they will return to the nest and you can start feathering again at Christmas. As housing becomes more and more expensive they may be returning after university and that too requires adjustment and flexibility on your part and on theirs.  

An empty nest is an opportunity to take time and space to consider your future and think about choices for your own development. If you let it, it can be an impulse for positive change and personal growth.

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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London, N6
Written by Selena Doggett-Jones, (Relationship/Psychosexual Therapist, AccCOSRT(sen)
London, N6

Selena Doggett-Jones specialises in relationship problems. She is senior COSRT accredited relationship and psychosexual therapist working in private practice in London. She has worked in the NHS for many years as a therapist and specialist nurse in sexual health and reproductive health. Website is

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