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When your babies fly the nest

The feelings associated with a child leaving home can be akin to grief, says psychologist and mother of four Dr SARAH WHITCOMBE-DOBBS. She shares some tips for getting through this transition.  By Sonia Speedy

University of Canterbury senior lecturer in child and family psychology and child and family psychologist, Dr Sarah Whitcombe-Dobbs has first-hand experience with kids flying the nest. She says it can be a tough time for parents and is particularly raw for parents of only children or when the youngest leaves home.

“It feels a lot like grief, even though your child is happy and healthy and doing what they’re meant to do,” she says.

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What we’re aiming for as parents is for our children to come into “confident self-reliance”, while staying connected with us, albeit as independent adults.

The parent’s role is two-fold: practical problem-solving and relational. And this transition period can last several years and may well be graduated, as kids can leave home (and come back again!), typically anywhere from 17 to 25 years of age.

Ideally, the young person is feeling confident, if not a little nervous, about the new experiences ahead. Ideally, parents will show their young person that they’ll miss them and think about them a lot but have confidence they can successfully navigate the challenges ahead.

“But in reality, it’s much more mixed. The last few years of being at home can be quite rocky.”.

Different kids are going to need different levels of emotional support. It may also be that both the young person and the parents are anxious about how the young person will cope.

When to help

How much parents step in to help their young people is a real judgment call, she says. For instance, when she noticed one of her children using a bathmat to dry the dishes in their flat because they didn’t have a tea towel, she let it go. But when they were being exploited by a landlord, then she offered her help.

It can also be difficult for parents to adjust to the fact that their child is now an adult, and things like educational information won’t necessarily be routinely shared with them.

Dr Whitcombe-Dobbs suggests setting the scene for this transition in high school, by increasing the freedom and autonomy the child has and starting to problem-solve alongside them, rather than for them. Ask how they want to approach an issue and talk through the relative merits. This helps the young person to develop that independence with your support and encouragement.


Expectations over how often you and your child are in touch once they move away can also be tricky. Dr Whitcombe-Dobbs suggests discussing the frequency of contact with your child, so you can be on the same page. Is it a weekly phone call with texts in between? Or is it more often, but less planned? Personality can play a role in this too, she says.

Different kids will want different levels of involvement from you in things like their move too. While one might want you to drive them to their new home and help organise it, others may be just as happy to do it all themselves, or with friends.

“The difference is them being in the drivers’ seat, rather than us taking over,” Dr Whitcombe-Dobbs says.

But what about you?

While what you’re feeling as a parent might be akin to grief, your role is not to put your emotional needs onto your young person.

“It’s not their job to be worried about your emotions. If they are, then things are the wrong way around,” Dr Whitcombe-Dobbs says.

“Give them the information that you’re OK and coping, and that you have confidence that they can keep themselves safe.”

You may well need to go and talk through what you’re experiencing with other people, such as friends and family, and if you have a partner or spouse, talk with them about how you feel.

“For single parents, it can be much harder. As the kids get older you may have developed a closer relationship as you don’t have that other adult in the house. It’s more challenging to hide your own feelings.”

Easing the transition

Keeping a space for them at home to return to helps young people feel confident to go out into the world to explore, knowing they have a safe space to return to if things get tough.

Dr Whitcombe-Dobbs says things like an online grocery delivery, fruit and vege box, or care package sent to their new home are often genuinely appreciated.

And maybe you might need a little care package for yourself.

More stories for parents of teens >>

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