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Redefining 'Empty Nest'

Updated: Sep 2, 2021

Young people leaving home? Feeling a bit adrift? Sad? Lost? Anxious? This blog is for you!

September has swung around again, with a speed unlike any other year it seems and with it the prospect of many young people leaving home and creating the so called 'empty nest' .

Although it is a commonly used phrase, I'm not sure if I like it that much, but I use it for convenience and mainly so people recognise it readily! As Ronna Benjamin wrote in a blog back in 2013:

'it connotes bare, barren, depleted, exhausted, unfilled, vacuous, deflated, boring, done, empty.'

Heck. That's not good. However from an NLP perspective, it really does show you the power of words. How in one person the phrase 'empty nest' may evoke the feelings above, whereas in another it may say:

'space, room to breathe and move, readjustment, opportunities, calm, time to oneself, a clear head, fewer responsibilities.

Your child's life will be full of new experiences.

It's good if yours is too.

Dr Margaret Rutherford

However you may be feeling at the moment, there seem to be a few fairly common stages that people go through when those in their care, leave home. As you may quickly realise, the practical tasks; packing boxes, tidying up, filling in forms, carrying luggage is the easy part. It's the emotional part that can be the hardest and heaviest to deal with. I've endeavoured to include the process for both the person leaving and the person staying in the list below.

  • Countdown

  • Anticipation

  • Farewells

  • The wrench

  • The readjustment

  • Preparing for the re-entry!

What do you need to put in place to make sure your transition into a new phase of life is smooth, fulfilling and essentially, what you want it to be?


This will have already started, at the time of the college/uni place or job offer etc. Several months can feel a long way ahead and then suddenly it's there. It is a good idea to think about the day of departure and work backwards, deciding what needs to be ready, prepared and sorted.

What needs to be in place and ready on that day?

Step back to the day before

Week before etc.


NOW! What has to happen right now in order to make sure there is a smooth transition?

Importantly this countdown is not just for the person leaving. It is a time for you to plan and prepare your time too. This often gets neglected at the expense of the person leaving. Plan your time ahead too.

This includes your journey back (if there is one) and the hours afterwards.

The following day/s...

Few weeks...


What do you need to put in place to make sure your transition into a new phase of life is smooth, fulfilling and essentially, what you want it to be?

2. Anticipation

There will be plenty of this; it can take both positive and more solemn forms. It can focus on loss rather more heavily for some parties than others.

What will I miss?

What will never be the same?

If you find yourself in overly solemn mood inject some lightness by considering the gains, even if it is about the more everyday stuff. (Less laundry! Fuel/water consumption down. More space on the sofa!)

3. Farewells

Saying goodbye and allowing other people to say goodbye is crucial in this process. It's part of the planning that needs to happen and makes the transition so much easier.

Decide who you need to say goodbye to and how . It will help you decide on what kind of farewell you arrange.

Is it over a drink, just one to one?

Immediate family?

Extended family?

In a small group?

A larger group going out?

A message/email to work colleagues, who are more like acquaintances.

4. The Wrench

The ripping off the plaster. The short painful thing. The trip to the airport or the new town/city. Here countdown can go into overdrive.

Only one more hour.

Just ten more minutes.

Truly you can really torture yourself at this point. Please don't. See it as part of the experience. It will happen, it will be OK.

Having experienced this in many forms over the years (leaving home, watching our children leave home, moving countries) I have learnt this:

If you can say goodbye in a more private way than at the airport or entrance to the student halls etc then do so.

The whole soggy mess of tears etc is something else to contend with in front of others. I'm not suggesting that you can't, or shouldn't say a public goodbye, but save the big speeches and deep emotional words for a more private time.

If you know you that you'll struggle with words, then why not pop a small handwritten note to be found later in the luggage? I do mean to be found later too - reading something heartfelt and emotional is not always good for the person leaving as they get ready to board the plane or say hello to a room mate.

I would also strongly recommend handing over something light-hearted and a bit of a surprise. A bar of favourite chocolate, a funny card, a photo, or some item that has a funny family story attached to it. Bringing some lightness to this moment is most welcome.

5. The readjustment

This starts the moment they have left. Make sure you have given some thought to the time immediately afterwards. You might need a bit of space. Heading straight out to a busy motorway may not be the right thing for you at that moment.

Refer to point 1, your countdown plan.

Expect the unexpected over the next few weeks. One of things that I never considered was missing shoes kicked off against the wall in the hallway or the sound of my daughter's bedroom door opening. She had some small bells attached to the door, which made a gentle clink when she opened or closed it. Funny, it felt like I missed that more than other rather more obvious things.

6. The re-entry - temporary

Time passes and they return. There will be slight shifts - especially vis-a-vis independence and readjusting to the 'rules in your home. Attitudes, values and opinions shift. If you use the empty nest analogy, both parties will have had a chance to spread their wings and explore new ideas and experiences.

One of the best pieces of advice I have heard regarding 'empty nest' is to avoid comparing your child's timetable to your own experience or expectations. Instead, focus on what you can do to help your child succeed when he/she they leave home.

So, is the empty nest for you Ronna Benjamin's definition, or has it shifted (a little) to:

'space, room to breathe and move, readjustment, opportunities, calm, time to oneself, a clear head, fewer responsibilities.

If you'd like to talk over any of the above aspects in more depth, or would like some further support for this stage of transition in your life, do get in touch.


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