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What is empty nest syndrome? Advice for coping when children fly the nest

When children ‘fly the nest’, parents and caregivers can feel bereft. They’ve focused their love and attention on raising offspring and then when they leave, there’s a noticeable space. During September and October, many parents across the UK collectively experience a grief-like feeling when young people head to university.

Prompted by this predictable but often painful transition, today we’re exploring what empty nest syndrome is. We’ll outline the symptoms and feelings of sadness parents can experience due to a child leaving home.

Our Head of Fostering, Martin Leitch also outlines:

– Media discussion around the topic

– Five Rivers research on the impact of empty nest

– Why and how some parents turn their empty nest experience around by becoming foster carers.

What are the symptoms of empty nest syndrome?

Empty nest syndrome is the name given to a collection of common symptoms triggered by a sense of loss that parents often feel when a child has left home. Also known as ’empty nest depression’, symptoms can include:

  • Sadness
  • Loneliness
  • Losing interest in activities
  • A loss of sense of purpose
  • Changes in sleep pattern
  • Lethargy
  • Feelings of hopelessness

Further information can be found in the BBC article Empty nest syndrome: The unexpected grief.

How long does it take to get over empty nest syndrome?

While experts say parents usually adjust to life without their children at home in a matter of months, some research suggests the process can sometimes take up to a year or more. Individual circumstances clearly have a part to play. For example, one survey by Unite found that feelings of loss and grief when children went to university were heightened due to families being more used to spending time together during the pandemic.

How do you survive empty nest syndrome?

Individuals can experience and respond to empty nest syndrome in different ways. Parents can feel a mix of pride and disappointment when a child’s life reaches this stage. When young adults head off to carve out their own future, a sense of accomplishment can ease this emotionally difficult time.

There’s also a chance to redefine or start a new phase of the parent-child relationship. Maintaining relationships through use of technology can provide reassurance and help retain a good familial bond. Staying busy through socialising and pursuing hobbies and interests can also provide welcome distractions. Our experience shows that when parents no longer have children living at home, sometimes they explore a long-held or new desire to foster to put their nest back into use

Coping with empty nest syndrome and the September enquiry uplift

Martin Leitch, shares our research on the topic and urges empty nesters to consider becoming Foster Carers:

Emma Beddington’s rich Guardian article (September 2022) about the blow to parents when children flee the nest to move on to new homes, jobs and university, lands at the time we launch our aptly named ‘Empty Nesters’ campaign.

Empty Nesters is a term that refers to a feeling of loneliness, sadness, or a loss of purpose that some parents experience when their child moves away from home. The grief-like experiences described in Emma’s article, when parents say farewell to their children, echoed the findings of a survey we recently conducted. The results told us that over *50% of parents whose children have moved away in the last 24 months, felt an overwhelming sense of sadness or loss of purpose. 

As we step into autumn, this is a period where we see a higher-than-average number of enquiries about fostering, many of which are from people who are recalibrating and taking a moment to think about how they can help other children as theirs move on. It can be a time of reflection and an opportunity to put their parenting experience into action in other ways.

Fostering a child, or children, won’t be for everyone. Many will want this new chapter in their life to be free of parental demands and foster care will not be the remedy they’re after. Ahead of all the practical and legal considerations that come with foster care, above all, there needs to be a strong urge to look after someone else’s child. This isn’t always easy but it is, for the most part, hugely rewarding. In the 45 years I have been working in social care, it is still so touching to hear how the relationships between carers and children can bring so much joy and love.

In a year when we see more undergraduates going to University than ever, there will be thousands of parents across the country struggling with many of the issues brought to life in The Guardian’s article. It would take only a small proportion of those to consider becoming a foster carer to tackle the drastic shortfall of carers across the country. Current projections estimate a shortage of 25,000 foster carers over the next five years.

These wouldn’t all need to be full-time carers, who devote their lives indefinitely to this profession. It could be made up of those who are prepared to offer short break care, a short and irregular commitment that supports full-time carers during times of annual leave. This could mean looking after a child, or children overnight, for a weekend or a week here and there over the year. These carers are a lifeline in the profession, as they provide support which means long-standing foster carers can continue their role and hold lasting relationships with the children they look after.

There is also a desperate need for more parent and child foster carers. These carers live and work with new, vulnerable parents and their small babies and children to help guide them as they learn to become parents for the first time.

It could also be an opportunity to offer short-term foster care, where you look after a child for a shorter period. This arrangement isn’t dissimilar to the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme that was launched to offer vulnerable children a safe haven in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis. We saw so many families open their hearts and their homes to offer refuge, there was a touching example of this in The Guardian article too.

For those who feel they could offer an occasional overnight stay or help a parent who is struggling with a baby, or welcome a child or sibling group into their home on a short term or permanent basis, there are many different foster care roles available.

Could you turn a child’s life around through fostering?

If you recognise empty nest syndrome symptoms such as a sense of grief or loneliness, or feel you have more to give to children across England who need a safe place to call home today, please call our carer enquiries team who will be able to talk you through the ways you could help on 03330 603 821.

*Research commissioned by Five Rivers Child Care via Censuswide.

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