University time: new starts and empty nests

As just under half a million young people prepare to go to university for the first time, Lisa Salmon asks the experts for tips to help them on their way, and looks at how parents can cope with Empty Nest Syndrome

With A-Level results now in, the next stop for many kids is university

AS THE dust settles from the euphoria of A-level results day, more than 460,000 soon-to-be students and their families are thinking about the practicalities of university life and living away from home for the first time.

While a record number of young people will be excited about the prospect of leaving home for university, many mums and dads will be happy for their children, but at the same time dreading them leaving and learning to cope with Empty Nest Syndrome.

But before that hits them, they have to focus on the present, listing, and possibly buying, all the essentials needed for a new life away from home. Most items will be swiped from home, including bedding, toiletries, and perhaps a bit of kitchen equipment.

It may, however, be necessary to buy items including a laptop, small TV, and that most essential of items – a doorstop, to maximise socialising.

As for the approach to student life, the university itself will help, says Sharon Clarke, director of teaching and learning at Manchester Business School.

"Universities are well-oiled machines when it comes to welcoming new students on to campus," she says, explaining that they'll send all the information needed to help young people get started.

Although it's tempting for some parents to do all they can for their teenage children, even when they're living away from home at university, Clarke warns it's important for mums and dads to bolster their child's independence.

"The first few weeks at university can be tough, but while staying in touch with friends and family is important, parents should encourage their children to build networks at university and avoid the temptation to be overly supportive - independence is a necessity.

"New students need to build independence, responsibility and resilience if they are to survive and thrive in a university environment."

She says parents can foster these qualities as soon as their child starts university by not doing their washing or sending food parcels and discouraging their child from surviving on expensive and unhealthy take-outs, instead encouraging them to cook for themselves.

"It's better to let new students find their feet," she says.

"Cooking in shared kitchens, taking turns to cook for friends, and sharing international cuisine with fellow students from across the globe is all part of the learning experience. New students need to get out and mix with others – everyone's in the same position, and making friends is a first step."

She stresses that safety and security is important, and as well as making sure their children are aware of risks, parents can help by ensuring they take out insurance to cover personal belongings.

Talking to them about budgeting is also vital, as it can be tempting to splash the cash from their student loan as soon as they get to university.

Universities aim to minimise additional costs on top of student fees, so new students should be able to avoid buying non-essential textbooks and equipment. Many also get part-time work, which not only provides an income, but also gives useful work experience.

"Don't overspend when you first get to university – you will need to budget carefully," Clarke warns new students.

And she adds: "You'll receive lots of information, but nobody expects you to know everything straight away. If you need any assistance, just ask someone –even if they don't know, they'll be able to point you to someone who does."

But it may not be the young student who's having problems – it could be mum and dad back home.

Many parents suffer from what's known as Empty Nest Syndrome when their children leave home.

Dr Mark Winwood, director of psychological services at AXA PPP healthcare, says: "In the weeks leading up to your child leaving, and as you start thinking about how they'll cope in their new home, you may yourself start feeling anxious, worried or stressed and your thoughts may move towards thinking about how you'll cope without them. These feelings can in turn lead to unhappiness and depression."

He says parents who feel like this should speak to their partner or a friend about their concerns, which may help alleviate worries.

"It's also important to remember that children can pick up on parents' emotions, so try to keep a relaxed, calming atmosphere around the home in the build-up to the move. After all, it's an exciting new chapter in their lives and they may also be feeling worried about their next steps."

Dr Winwood explains that although some parents feel positive emotions about their child progressing in life, many feel bewildered and anxious.

"They may feel an overwhelming sense of loss. Coping with change can be difficult and, the more difficult the changes, the more stress you have to cope with."

The resulting depression can have physical symptoms such as aches and pains, sleeping badly, changes in appetite and having no energy. Emotional symptoms can include feeling constantly sad or low, having difficulty concentrating or making decisions, feeling that you can't cope, irritability, and having negative thoughts about yourself.

But he stresses: "It's important to remember that you don't need to tackle problems on your own. If you're a parent and are concerned about Empty Nest Syndrome and depression, see your GP."


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