An older woman and her younger daughter look out to sea, leaning their heads together Credit: Shutterstock

“What I wish I’d known about becoming an empty nester”

The summer before your teen moves out is an emotional time, says author Lorraine Candy. Here’s how to approach it, and avoid making her mistakes.

You’ve nailed the leaving home packing list, Googled “mini towel dryer” and trawled charity shops for beer glasses. Finances have been discussed, travel routes researched, and you even know where to park when you drop your teenager off at university or college this autumn.  

“Phew,” you think: with all these practical things ticked off you can savour the long goodbye – that two-month stretch of summer before they depart. The final letting go. 

You envisage family dinners, holidays, cinema trips, and walks with the dog. You fantasise about watching TV box sets together and enjoying summer cocktails. After all, you’ve got eight long weeks before your beloved teen slips off into the adult world. Right? 

If only.  

Shifting allegiances

The summer after Sky, my eldest, left school was nothing like I’d envisaged or planned, because she simply disappeared. One minute I was tripping over giant trainers left lying around and encountering sleepy teens eating instant noodles at 3pm, the next minute the house was empty.  

Eerie, music-free silence replaced the background noise of endless TikTok videos. I didn’t expect this, and neither did any of the other mums in my WhatsApp groups.  

“I used to moan about the mess in the bathroom but now it’s clear I feel lonely. Where has he gone? I haven’t seen him for days,” one messaged me.

Lorraine Candy smilingCredit: Lorraine Candy
Lorraine Candy enjoyed a career as a magazine editor before becoming an author

None of us knew about the summer our teenagers would vanish. We knew about empty nest syndrome, but we didn’t factor in that during the two months leading up to the final goodbye, our teens would get all-consuming jobs, new boyfriends or girlfriends, go to relentless gatherings on the heath or in the park, head to Wetherspoon’s at opening time, train it to festivals, head abroad with mates, or be on weeklong sleepovers.  

We didn’t imagine that, in the final days of living in their childhood home, they would prefer a matinee with their mates to an evening of telly with us. Or that they would no longer need a seat at the family dinner table because their personal timetable had changed (what with their 2pm get-ups and 4am get-ins).  

Most importantly, we ignored the obvious fact that in their minds, the departure had already started and family was simply not part of their plan.  

“A living loss”

“The Vanishing”, as my husband and I ended up calling it, seemed to happen overnight. So if you have teenage kids, I am here from your future to tell you to be ready for it.  

That last summer is emotional. I found it physically and mentally exhausting staying alert to snatch time with Sky, before she headed to university. I was simultaneously trying not to be needy and to give her the privacy every teen needs to grow up, as well as being with her as often as I could.  

Our dog was as distraught as me. We would both jump at the sound of her key in the door, racing to see her, only to hear her already in the shower. She would leave moments later – wet towels all over the floor the only evidence of her presence.  

The family dynamic changed. Her siblings, then aged 10, 14 and 16, had to find a new routine with one another. The experience was what you might call a “living loss”: we felt grief for the end of her childhood and what had been, while adjusting to what was to come now we were a home for five instead of six.  

What would have helped is to think about how all this might play out before it happened – which we did when daughter number two, Grace, left for university last year.  

The second time around, I kept myself occupied. I didn’t assume her presence at anything family-orientated so that I didn’t feel let down. But I did book tickets to a few activities I knew she’d want to do with me in advance. I left nothing to chance and planned our meet-ups as I would with friends, to ensure I had some Grace-time to look forward to. 

Remember self-care

I also came to terms with the fact that not only would I lose her gradually, I would also lose contact with her friends, some of whom I’d known since they were toddlers. For some parents, the vanishing of the boyfriend or girlfriend they may have seen rather a lot of creates another hole in the household.  

I tried not to feel sad about any of this. Life is about change, and you realise this more acutely as your children untether themselves from family life.  

A little bit of chaos also reigns during the summer of the Vanishing. Teens make mistakes in their quest for independence and stressful situations do crop up. I realised I needed to take care of myself during that “last summer” too – I needed rest to stay calm, to be the grown-up in tricky times. 

The experience was what you might call a “living loss”: we felt grief for the end of her childhood.

That the Vanishing often coincides with mums going through the mental and physical turmoil of perimenopause (the years leading up to the menopause), when fluctuating hormones can throw symptoms like sleep loss at you, hardly helps.  

I was more aware of this the second time. I hadn’t been with Sky, and I still regret the moments of lost temper, anxious panic and overwhelming sadness. I grappled with those issues before HRT restored me to my former self for Grace’s departure.  

So as you head into these summer months, take a mental picture of every family moment you can squeeze in, for there will be fewer than you think.  

Slowly loosen the bonds that tie you to your teen and watch with curious happiness as they head out into the world.  

And, as I can now reassure you, this is not the end. They will be back and a new chapter of family life will begin. It’s different but just as lovely. 

Five things you should not say before your teen flies the nest this autumn: 

  1. “Why is your room such a mess? Have we been burgled?” Pick your battles, especially in these last precious days. That messy room will soon be an empty room and you’ll miss the chaos more than you think. 
  2. “I’ve planned a huge goodbye celebration/meal/holiday with all our relatives.” Some (rare) teens may want this, but most won’t. They may want something small and thoughtful – or nothing, because this goodbye can be painful for them too. 
  3. “I can’t wait to go shopping for all your uni stuff.” You may look forward to this shopping trip but they probably won’t. Make it as ad hoc as possible and don’t be disappointed if it puts them in a bad mood – they sometimes act grumpy because they don’t want you to know they’re feeling sad too.  
  4. “Let’s go for a walk and chat to catch up.” Never going to happen, for most of us. Teenagers vary, but for those on a quest for independence, this is possibly the most unwelcome adult activity ever. 
  5. “Where are you going and when will you be back?” Of course you want to have some house rules around comings and goings, but this is the summer where they will test not having to answer this question, so let them. After all, come the autumn, you won’t have any idea what they’re up to, so get used to it now. 

Written by Lorraine Candy she/her