At this time of year many families are facing an issue they probably feel ill-equipped to handle – I know I do. Eventually all of us leave home but when older kids go to Uni it’s like a halfway stage in that they move some of their stuff but do not completely leave.

Going to Uni is supposed to be an exciting time for young people even as it must be daunting to start the next phase of their lives. Many of them feel anxious and undecided about the issue of whether to go, what they will study, followed by how they’ll afford it. Even how much we as parents need to contribute comes under scrutiny as the Government’s student finance body assesses our income and determines how much they offer versus our top up fee. It’s a daunting time for them and for us.

Many are faced with leaving their friends to which I am realistic enough to accept is as important, if not more important, to them then leaving me!.  That is, until the day they will have to say goodbye!

I refer to this as a half way stage towards leaving because in many ways they are not fully going but it’s probably going to feel like it. Their ‘stuff’ will still be here and their belongings that they don’t want will act as a reminder of them. My trouble is my kids have been everything to me other than working for the last 13 years since separating and divorcing. So, there is a lot for me to think about. I have, I believe, two choices: either I embrace this time, or I feel their loss all the time. My gut feel is that I will probably do both but although it will be a difficult phase for me, I think it’s important to recognise a few things: –

  1. Firstly, I may feel sad and that’s normal, or I’ll feel a bit lost or lonely, but this isn’t grief. Grief is about loss and my children aren’t lost to me. They are not leaving ME, they’re moving towards another phase of their lives. They will also have access to me any time they need, that’s the beauty of mobile phones and using Skype or Zoom to connect with them. Video calls are a bonus in this situation and mean either of them can ‘ring’ me in a way and ask for my help just as they would here.

 

  1. This is a reason to celebrate. Celebrate the fact that you/ I have brought your kids up to expect a lot of themselves, to want to do well and to reach out in to the world and explore what it has to offer. The ONLY way they’ll do that is by starting their journey and separating themselves from me. Without that separation they could struggle. Struggling once away from home takes many forms, from being indecisive, experiencing low self-esteem, low self-worth, fearing failure, excessive anxiety, overwhelm and the inability to connect with others, to making friends. There are so many life skills teenagers and young people need, that it’s a subject of my next book – Toolkit for Teens.

 

  1. We can’t equip our kids with everything they need for this experience because some of it they must learn for themselves, but we can use the next 2 months to do some very useful things that will help them.

 

So, what do they need?

Practical Skills: –

  1. Some of the simple things we probably take for granted as mums, they might need to learn from scratch. I’m expecting my son to take between 5 and 10 simple recipes so that he can cook the basics himself. I’m not expecting a full-scale roast as a meal, but I don’t want him to live on noodles!
  2. Ironing may not be the most essential skill but knowing how will save him from going out in something that is a complete mess in case they have the option to be able to iron the occasional shirt.
  3. Being able to sew can help a lot too as small, basic repairs make a big difference to feeling in control of what is needed to handle your life.
  4. Even though my son may have watched me use the washing machine numerous times and probably wash up, I may take it for granted that he understands how to avoid shrinking something, or how to not leave his dishes particularly greasy. Again, this may seem simple, but it ensures he learns to live well with other people.

Emotional skills: –

These probably feel more important to me although that’s possibly because of my area of expertise. Their greatest adjustment as young people, might be the ability to ‘connect’ with others quickly so that they make friends. We are social animals and although we vary in our need for company to do everything in our lives, most of us would accept that the lack of company leaves us feeling isolated and potentially lonely. Loneliness is a difficult state to manage. It rapidly feels personal and young people may lack the assertiveness to push themselves and break through this. Otherwise, to cope, they may withdraw and that carries a risk. Withdrawing may feel easier, to cope with the stress, but this can exacerbate the problem. I know because I’ve done this!

In Simon’s Sinek’s recent book ‘Leaders Eat Last’, he cites the four chemicals we need and utilise in daily life. He refers to this as EDSO.

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The first, Endorphins are essential for us. These are our personal opiate and give us the endurance to be able to do long physical exercise or feats of endurance.

Dopamine get is a great feel good. We get a hit from it whenever we finish a task and as we are quite goal oriented as a species, many of us become very pushed by, and addicted to, dopamine. All salespeople will be able to relate to this and we begin to develop the need for it around this time of our lives. Whenever we achieve something or put in a lot of effort we get a reward for it but because dopamine is addictive we can push hard to get more and more of it. This in turn, reinforces our behaviour which is a good thing if we achieve the goals we set ourselves, but not such a good thing if we’re not getting enough of it. Several substances trigger dopamine into the brain and this chemical rush comes whenever we eat sugar, gamble, go shopping, watch football, or play with our phones! It’s one of the reasons why people don’t realise how addicted they become to social media.

Serotonin on the other hand, is a more sustainable hit and gives us a substantial feeling of reward that lasts a while. We get a hit from it when we achieve something we really want or spend time with people who help us feel liked and rewarded. This is the reason we feel proud of ourselves when we achieve something that can take several years. University by its nature is going to ask this of someone. Receiving the degree is brilliant but it can take quite a lot of effort to get to it so the greater value we place on developing links with others, forming bonds so that we understand each other and get on well and look for support, the more likely we are to achieve our reward. This is not only the attainment of the degree but a very long-standing series of memories.

Oxytocin is possibly the most valuable of all as it is this chemical that pushes us to bond with others. Being in the company of our closest friends or colleagues, is part of our survival instinct and is long-lasting. It is this chemical that makes us social and the same chemical that is released when we are together. Not being with others or not connecting well, can leave us feeling deprived and drive cortisol into our system. Cortisol contributes to anxiety and encourages us to feel sad and tense which exacerbates the problem as the more tense we become, the less able we can reach out to others. As we avoid reaching out, we stop the soothing action that serotonin and oxytocin can have and instead become protective of our feelings and defensive if teased. It’s not by accident, that we refer to university as a mixed time for some and it can be essential to recognise the different purpose of each of these chemicals so that we understand them first, and then act to increase them.

So, in conclusion: –

  1. When both of my kids go to uni I guess you could call it my time. Although that may sound selfish, it’s probably better than dreading it and then struggling to cope when it happens. If I can plan what I’m going to do then at least I can try to handle it. It will also be a phase in like all phases it will not last forever. So, they will come home and even before then I will probably have gone to see them. I’m realistic enough to know that my purse is as important as anything I have to say, but either way it will feel incredibly familiar and I’m hoping we will feel even stronger as a family.
  2. Despite the absence from each other, nothing will essentially change. They will still be my kids, still need me as their mum and still love me and really at the end of the day, that’s all that matters.
  3. I once read “you don’t get to keep your children; your job is to look after them then let them go’”. This image of a ‘caretaking’ role is quite meaningful really and helps me realise that I’m still responsible for helping them handle their lives and everything that comes their way for some time to come. In fact, I will probably no sooner have finished supporting and bringing them up, then they will bring me their children to look after!

In my own way, I’m looking out for them, teaching them where necessary and encouraging them. I’ll do so whenever they need me and when they don’t, it’ll be my turn and I’m going to try and have fun!

Take care, Sue