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Feathering our empty nests


September is a month of change and restart for many of us with our children starting school or returning after a long summer holiday and students off to Freshers’ week at University. Many parents find this period very stressful, including ‘empty nesters’ who are in a much quieter household for the first time in years.

Mixed emotions are par for the course during these transitions. This week my wife and I wave goodbye to our 3rd child off to University. As exciting as it is to support this transition into adulthood, I find it really sad knowing that the frequency of our contact is about to drastically fall – I will really miss my son. Despite being an experienced mental health professional and having been through it twice before it is still really tough.

These mixed emotions stem from the bitter-sweet act of letting go in the knowledge that our children have to develop independence by learning from setbacks without us jumping in. Our paternal and maternal instincts strongly draw into a protective mode when standing back and supporting from a distance is best for all.

In order to be at our best for children or others, prioritising self-care is vital. When you notice yourself feeling sad or lonely try to shift your focus onto the positives: less noise, more space, less shopping & cooking for example. Try to use some of that regained mental space and time for constructive actions such as exercise; meditation; more quality time with your partner or catching up with other friends / family.

Practising gratitude can also be very helpful – shift your sorrow or worrying onto an appreciation for what you have: a healthy child setting off on the next stage of their journey or a reduction in the day to day demands of parenting.

Mindfulness – noticing our environment ‘with curiosity’ is an effective mindfulness technique to bring ourselves into the present moment when feeling overwhelmed or upset. If you feel like you need to put these thoughts on hold and perhaps press the “reset button”. There are many great Apps and tools you can try: headspace, calm or themindfulnessapp.

Practising these exercises can help us to feel grounded and less stressed, banishing negative emotions and improving our mood and focus.

The mixed feelings we have for our kids leaving home are complicated but if we can learn to live with them and find different ways of ‘feathering’ our mental nests, we can shift this from a difficult experience to an opportunity for growth. And finally, don’t let the opportunity to share your emotions (safely!) with your children, this is the best way for them to develop emotional literacy and to understand the benefits of being open with how we are feeling. After all, if they do start to struggle we want to know that we have taught them that it is wonderful if they can share that with us without feeling they will be a burden.

Dr Phil Hopley

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