More than half a million parents confront the empty nest for the first time each year. It is one of the most challenging phases of parenting, and it’s also a difficult, albeit exciting, time for children too. In this article, you will learn how to prepare your child to cope independently.
The empty nest will be more bearable for parents if they feel their children are ready to cope away from home both practically and emotionally. Yet many teenagers aren’t that good at the practical side of life, such as doing their own washing and cooking. It clearly benefits everyone if domestic know-how is absorbed as a natural part of family life, and if kids know roughly how often to wash their sheets and cook proper food. So it makes me blush when I hear former head of counselling at Brunel University Dr Ruth Caleb say that students’ inability to look after themselves is an increasing problem for universities: ‘I’ve seen how distressed students become when they don’t know how to look after themselves. It’s important that parents help their child become independent by encouraging them to take a more adult part in family life, for example by helping preparing a meal a couple of nights a week and doing their own washing. Nurturing a sense of responsibility will help them grow up in a way which makes it easier for both parents and children to let go, and welcome them back as young adults.’
In the year before they leave children have a vested interest in learning to be more self-sufficient. So take advantage of it. Even if they need a bit of a nudge it’s easier to learn anything if there’s a point to it. What you want to avoid are those panicky last minute instructions – ‘Don’t put a fork in the toaster!’, ‘Remember your bike lights!’ – which simply ratchet up the stress. Bear in mind that you can’t equip your children for all eventualities and that what matters is that they’re not embarrassed to ask for help, and that they know they can always ask you. I still love getting phone calls about how to cook a Nigella dish, or how to wash delicates.
Alice, twenty-three, says she was better prepared than most of her fellow students: her dad had taught her how to cook a few basic dishes and she knew how to use a washing machine. ‘It helped that I had visited my older sister at university a few times, and that gave me a sense of what it would be like not to be a child living at home with your parents. But I knew a lot of people, usually guys, who were rubbish at looking after themselves. They adapted quite quickly; you learn from other people and seeing how they cope.’
There is no shortage of horror stories about students running up huge overdrafts and debts on credit cards. This is not counting the standard debts for tuition fees and the maintenance grant owed to the Student Loan Company. A recent survey by the price comparison site MoneySupermarket found that the numbers of students taking out payday loans had more than doubled over the past ten years to more than 25 per cent. Even teenagers with part-time jobs or allowances when they’re at school can be ignorant about the cost of everyday essentials like instant coffee and washing powder. So the temptation to blow the maintenance grant – a massive lump sum – on a new phone or laptop is huge. Students need to understand that the grant needs to be eeked out. It will help to go through the budget together. That might not be easy: teenagers often lose interest when it comes to discussions about money.
The first rule is to make sure it’s a discussion and not a lecture. Your young person may well have heard about the terrifying interest rates that can be incurred by using credit cards, unauthorised overdrafts and payday loans. But they need to be encouraged to think about how that might affect them. After all, maintenance loans are hard to survive on, and even sensible spenders are tempted to use a credit card for emergencies. From there it may be a slippery slope. In the MoneySupermarket survey some undergraduates had spent their maintenance loan in the first five weeks of term. Perhaps more worryingly a third chose not to tell their parents about extra loans they’d taken out.
What should help is to work out a weekly budget with two lists: income from various sources, such as maintenance grant, parent’s contribution (if any) and part-time work. If your child plans to take a job, discuss how many hours are realistic without impinging on study and social life. Then list outgoings: essentials like accommodation, food and travel. It is then possible to work out a fairly accurate estimate of what’s left for non-essential, one-off purchases and social life and break this down into a weekly budget.
Having said all this, young adults must always feel they can come to you if they get into a hole with money – or indeed with anything. Even if you won’t or can’t pay off the bill, you will be able to help them work out ways of dealing with debt without resorting to drastic measures.
TIPS: Basics that adult kids need to know
The cost of basics like coffee and fruit can be a shock, so encourage children to help with the family shopping. Help them work out a weekly or monthly budget for when they leave home, based on all sources of income and realistic spending.
Encourage seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds to make their own doctor and dentist appointments and pick up their own prescriptions. Make sure they register with a GP when they leave home.
Each family has its own attitudes: some parents are more open about sex than others. Young adults often act as if they know it all, and get embarrassed and dismissive if parents try to broach the subject. If that is the case, and you worry that your child is not fully clued up about contraception and safe sex, give them a good book. But it has to be up to parents to impart the most important information: about emotions, feeling ready for sex and being confident enough to say no.
Drugs and alcohol
Again different families take a different line on what is acceptable, and some are more liberal than others. Either way parents hope their influence will persist in the face of peer pressure, and that is more likely if they have allowed teenagers to manage their own boundaries in an increasingly adult way. Ruth Caleb explains: ‘Teenagers still need boundaries, but boundaries need to change as parents recognise the child’s budding adulthood. Teenagers have to learn to negotiate, yet some parents find this hard: at one extreme they may allow the child to do absolutely anything, so the child has no boundaries, and as a result, no sense of being cared for. At the other extreme parents may be intransigent and the child has no power at all. When those children leave home they often fail to manage their own boundaries – drinking far too much, taking drugs and getting behind in their studies.’
It’s important your child knows how to cook the food they like eating if they are moving into a flat or self-catered accommodation. Compile a personal cookbook of easy, cheap recipes to take with them – if you’re feeling arty it could even be illustrated with magazine pictures or family photos. Or buy them a cookbook for students or beginners. Kids also need to know about basic food hygiene when it comes to preparing, storing and defrosting food; how long to reheat leftovers; cleaning chopping boards and knives.
Sort through their laundry together, explaining washing symbols, separating whites from colours and delicates from jeans. Explain what needs handwashing and how to do it, what can go in the dryer and what needs hanging out. Give an idea of how often they should wash bedding and towels.
Explain how to avoid electric shocks – very important with guitar players – why not to put metal knives in toasters or metal in microwaves, how to change a plug, that water and electricity don’t mix and so on. If they ride a bike, go with them to choose a helmet and make sure they know the risks of not wearing it.
Run through a simple list of which products to use and how. Focus on the bathroom, loo and kitchen.
You are likely to get a better response if you share your anxieties rather than laying down the law. Even if young adults won’t admit it, they probably feel a bit apprehensive about staying safe on new territory. Be honest about what worries you, and explain that while you may be over-anxious that’s part of your job as a parent, and discuss what could make you feel better. If you are calm, honest – and avoid referring to horror stories you’ve been told or read in the paper – it should sink in, even if they roll their eyes.
by Celia Dodd
Newly updated, The Empty Nest is an uplifting, practical and inspiring guide to adjusting to life after your children leave home.
More than half a million parents confront the empty nest for the first time each year. It is one of the most challenging phases of parenting, often creating feelings of loss, lack of purpose and crisis of identity which can lead to depression. Yet it receives little recognition. And contrary to popular opinion it doesn't only affect women who've put their careers on hold: working mothers and fathers suffer too. Equally, it can be a period of liberation and discovery of new challenges, when marriages long overstressed by childcare can be rejuvenated.
The Empty Nest includes case studies documenting a wide range of experiences of parents living through an empty nest; expert comment and advice; plenty of practical ideas, inspiration and tips. This encouraging, empowering books helps you to focus on the positive as well as how to handle the changing relationship with your children to ensure a fulfilling and good relationship going forward, an area of parenting often ignored.