When your child goes off to Uni it can shake up family chemistry

For some it’s the quiet in the house at meal-times, for others it’s the tidiness in the bathroom. Others say it’s the television not being on, or perhaps the PlayStation that has fallen silent. However it manifests itself, a strange feeling is taking over the houses where Sheffield school students used to live.

Wednesday, 11th September 2019, 8:45 am
Updated Friday, 11th October 2019, 7:44 pm
Typical student meal - beans on toast

It’s a couple of weeks since this year’s cohort of kids packed up their kettles, Pot Noodles, toasters and laptops – then headed off to stay in the halls of their chosen university as if they had woken up one day with an ability to fend for themselves.

Some will manage admirably and be able to rustle up speciality, low-budget dishes, while others will undoubtedly struggle and resort to the type of Sunday lunch that I feasted on at university – digestive biscuits and own-brand cola.

Either way, the kids will probably be doing much better than the parents at this time of year, when the last 18 years of their life seem to have gone by in the blink of an eye and their little darlings are out there in the big, wide world – drinking in the queue for nightclubs, not texting home enough and generally causing heaps of anxiety.

I’ve spoken to several parents over the last few weeks about how they feel when a son or daughter heads off to university and they really are going through a tough time. If you have ever experienced the sudden departure of a child when they leave to study, you’ll fully sympathise with their plight as they wander around the house half anticipating the door will open and they’ll come wandering in.

Some use the term ‘grief’ and liken the loss to a sudden bereavement; I’m not one to use that term as I don’t want to compare the departure for uni with the death of a child. But the fact that some parents do use this language is a testimony for how distraught they are feeling. When a family has grown together and supported their child over 18 years, this shaking up of the family chemistry can have profound effects, making it an extremely challenging period. I’ve known couples suffer extreme stress with this change of family circumstance, some deciding to go their separate ways in a bid to better cope with the change. And there have, to be fair, been some couples who have given an enthusiastic fist-pump during Fresher’s Week and not looked back as they entered a romantic renaissance.

Of course, there’s no textbook for how to cope when a child trundles off to uni; there’s no manual, just as there wasn’t when you brought the baby home from the hospital and wondered what to do with it. And support is something that is desperately needed at this time.

The student will find most universities have a fair amount of support for making the transition to life away from home. But who supports the families who struggle to cope with the one less place set at the table and the absence of overpowering deodorant or perfume wafting from the bathroom? Often it comes down to family and friends, so make sure you ask how the parents are as well as asking how their little darling is settling in.

The feeling of loss has been given an official term – empty nest syndrome – and there’s a range of advice out there about how to cope with it, be it getting extra hobbies or taking in foreign students. Nothing can fill the gap in the family unit, of course, and we have to deal with the march of time.

Technology has made the transition easier. When I was training to teach at university, the mobile phone revolution had yet to happen and making contact with home meant either writing a letter or standing in a long queue for a telephone box. Today, at least instant messaging and FaceTime are here – concepts that were only on Star Trek when us parents were studying.

But if you’re not here yet, if you’re lucky enough to be the parent of a Sheffield school student further down the academic ladder, then make the most of your time together through secondary.

Don’t be too eager to let them grow up and spend every second out with friends – because the Fresher’s Week that hits you hard will be along all too soon.