My children are now 18 and 20 years old. Although the 20-year-old took two years out to work for a bit, both have now gone to university at the same time. One is at Loughborough and the other is at East Anglia.
On the day I took my daughter I could tell she was ready to go. I would use the expression ‘chomping at the bit’ or ‘straining at the leash’. Both expressions seem to match how she felt. We carted her stuff into her room with no lift and most of the contents of the house in our hands! Exhausted but happy we finished! She looked happy and was looking forward to unpacking her boxes. She also met most of the other kids on her floor within only a few minutes of arriving. There were eight of them who had to share a kitchen and keep it tidy.
In contrast, my son was lucky, and his accommodation had a kitchen for him and only two others. His room had a small double bed and enough space to empty most of his wardrobe from home including his rugby kit! His rugby trial seemed to go well, and he is at the stage of a second interview with a probable sponsor for his course. I am so pleased for both of them.
Because my son was the second to go, I drove back home from him with a heavy heart. It didn’t surprise me that I was on BBC Sussex and Surrey radio the next day to comment on empty nest. I sat waiting to speak and listened to a young woman describe how she missed her mum. Her mum then described how she missed her much loved daughter, and it created a pang. But there are a few observations about this stage of our lives that seem as relevant to me as it does to them: –
- They are not going anywhere. Although they may live somewhere different for a period they will still need us. Both my kids value my advice, problem solving ability, and support. It isn’t because I’m a psychologist, to them I am their mum and I always will be. There is no substitute for a hug from me even if I must give it over the telephone or a video call now.
- If we both stop and think about it, this is as much the next chapter of my life as it is theirs. If I choose to see it as such, then I decide now what I do with my time. There is something liberating about that. For mums, I have described before how we have a satellite dish which is up all the time when our kids are around. The dish works as a receiver for all things needed by my children. ‘Have we got any food in, have they got their packed lunch, has my son got his golf or rugby stuff?’. Unless I am fast asleep, this dish is ‘on receive’ all the time when they are with me. I don’t resent it, and I don’t worry about it, but knowing that I don’t have to use it all the time is a revelation!
- I always knew this phase was coming. I may not have known they would go to Uni but once the A-levels were over, I knew both would move on. Even if they were to go out to work they would want to move out and make a life for themselves. In that sense, we are caretakers as parents. We don’t own our kids, but we can influence how they cope with both this change and any other big change in their lives.
- As tough as it is, it’s important to help them adjust before, or at the same time, as we ourselves are doing. They must learn this life skill from us. So, if you are finding it tough, try to talk to other parents or friends. Let your grief or loss out, without leaning on your children if you can. The reason is simple. They need to know we are okay as we are their rock around which they swim.
Yesterday I found myself in the practice talking to somebody for the first time. This individual was not in crisis themselves. They had the common sense to come and see me before their mental health had drifted too far downwards. I was grateful for this, because it is easier to fix somebody’s view on an issue if they are not too miserable and unhappy. I told him as I have said to others, it is important young people learn the skills needed to handle their lives. This includes: –
- coping with emotional pain,
- handling loneliness,
- solving problems,
- making decisions,
- handling rejection and failure.
I would love it if we didn’t need any of these skills. If life went well for everyone it would be great. But we very often do need them, and life doesn’t go well for all. By the time we are adults we need these skills. If we don’t get opportunities to learn or we don’t get taught them, we start to look for coping mechanisms. It is my belief we turn our thoughts inwards. These thoughts begin to find fault. We begin to criticise ourselves and believe we are the only ones who are struggling. Because we are struggling we are certain we are useless or at the very least, stupid.
This might be how we become negative in our perspective on life. It might also be how damaging self-talk begins. We blame ourselves because we cannot cope instead of recognising this is a skill. We need to reach out to people who can teach it to us. We wouldn’t expect to build a house without the skill, so why would we expect to cope with change without the skill?
By the time we are a university student we have learnt that life is sometimes unfair and tough. Even if we have had an easy ride thus far, someone near us will be less so. It is unlikely we lack sympathy for them, yet we can be lacking in sympathy for ourselves! We become impatient, pushy, and unhappy.
Yet it is not about blame. If you are struggling as a young person at Uni or as a parent, it isn’t your fault. It doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong. But it does mean, that you need time, someone to learn from and to be kind to yourself. You need to seek out someone to guide you. Try to copy someone who is handling things better than you are. Reach out for support from Student Services so that you can talk about it until the feelings ease.
My son went has been through a period of homesickness. Never having felt this before he didn’t recognise it. He started the usual self-deprecating, damaging chat inside his head. He wanted to ‘man up’ but didn’t know how. In a 24-hour period over Sunday and Monday we talked often and in it I tried to help him understand something.
- He is fine in the sense that no one has gone anywhere in his life, he hasn’t lost us, and we still love him very much. As a result, he needs to realise we are there.
- It’s okay to feel low but it’s better to have a strategy or plan. With a plan in place, you begin to feel less adrift. The plan needs to be about looking for things to do. Look for ways to do the things that you used to do which you enjoyed when you were at home. Going to the gym, spending time with friends, having a beer, and watching TV are all okay. Structuring your day so that you have a bit of time for each of these is important.
- Make an effort. Doing this means getting out of your room and going to find people. People are a panacea for your pain or discomfort and they are someone to talk about something else with.
- This phase will not last. You need a technique to manage your emotional distress. Start looking for the good days so that in any one week you notice things are getting better. Freshers week or fortnight is well-known for creating stress. In its own way it’s quite well designed. If the University set lectures from the time you first arrived, you could get overwhelmed. There would be no time to orient yourself or familiarise yourself with anything. There would be hundreds of students unable to find anything! So, in its own way it is well-intentioned. Unfortunately, many young people aren’t used to being away from home. They’re not used to a lack of structure in their day. They need to discover where their room is, how to feed themselves, and where the lectures are. Budgeting, ironing, and socialising our hard work!
- If the homesickness doesn’t ease within a couple of weeks, then please do not suffer in silence. If you feel you don’t want to tell your parents, then please seek out Student Services. They are an excellent resource. They are very used to seeing students who are unhappy or uncertain. They will know what to say and no one needs to know you sought the help if that matters to you.
This is a big change in the life of a new Uni student and in the life of a new ‘parent without kids’ but it does ease. Having a sense of perspective and allowing yourself some time is essential. Being kind to yourself in the process and seeking help, are all that most of us need.
Good luck and I’ll keep you informed how I get on!