Navigation Toggle Icon

9 in 10 parents experienced grief after kids left for university this year

5 October 2021

  • Many believe the pandemic and lockdowns have added to the wrench of an empty nest and have experienced physical symptoms or fear marriage breakdown
  • Fathers (99%) are feeling the loss more acutely than mothers (95%) this year
  • Unite Students has teamed up with expert Dr Dominique Thompson to offer help and support for parents struggling to cope without their kids living at home

New independent research commissioned by Unite Students, the UK’s largest provider of student accommodation, and undertaken by Censuswide, shows that empty nest syndrome is hitting hard, with 98% of parents dropping off a child at university for the first time this autumn saying they have experienced extreme grief.

Fathers have been hit the hardest, with almost all of those surveyed (99%) saying they have felt a real sense of loss. Furthermore, 93% of parents believe that being closer to their children throughout the pandemic has made the situation worse.

The research, which polled 1,000 parents of first-time university students, revealed that 9 in every 50 parents (18%) of empty-nesters fear what the future holds for them, while 17% said they have cried uncontrollably. Meanwhile, 3 in every 20 parents (15%) believe they face a period of depression, and 17% have had physical symptoms of grief, including panic attacks, sleeplessness, a racing heart or illness.

However, it’s not just themselves they’re worried about. More than one in six parents (17%) questioned are worried about the stability of their marriage or other relationships now their kids have left, while 17% have admitted to arguing with their partner more.

Meanwhile, over a fifth of parents (21%) feel guilty for not making the most of the time they had with their child, and 19% wish they could have that time again. Some had a more positive outlook, with almost a quarter (24%) of parents saying they felt excited about the new experiences that their child would have, and 17% admitting to boasting to others that their child was going to university.

For those who are coping better with the impact of children flying the nest, many have still experienced things they weren’t expecting. A third of parents (33%) have struggled to recalibrate the weekly shop, perhaps accumulating a milk lake and cereal mountain without a ravenous child at home, while 32% miss the mess their children left around the house and 35% were unable to go into their child’s room for a time. Over 36% have found themselves staring at an empty seat at the dinner table and 35% have found themselves clinging to younger siblings.

In a bid to stave off the impact of empty nest syndrome, parents are turning to a range of things – some constructive, some less so. Almost a third have considered a new pet, or let an existing one sleep in the bed and 17 in every 50 parents are considering a lodger. Others are becoming polishing fanatics, with 35% channelling their emotions into cleaning, and 37% starting a new hobby.

A worrying three in ten parents (30%) say they’re drinking more alcohol or have started drinking, while many (34%) have made use of a helpline or would consider doing so.

While the majority of parents believe they were prepared for the sudden emotional impact of a child leaving home, 87% wish they’d thought about it in advance or sought advice. Almost all of those questioned (99%) were surprised that more parents don’t talk about it openly.

One parent to experience empty nest syndrome is fifty-six-year-old Susan Utting-Simon, whose daughter Aminta moved from Leeds to London to begin studying at King’s College in September. She said: “Since Aminta moved away to university, I’ve experienced waves of different emotions. I have had moments when I’m thinking, ‘I’m sure she’s absolutely fine’, and then waves of what can only be described as grief hit me. I’m really not exaggerating.”

Dr Dominique Thompson is an expert on empty nest syndrome and co-author of How to Grow a Grown Up. She has teamed with Unite Students as tens of thousands of teens settle into its accommodation. She said: “Empty nest syndrome can feel very similar to bereavement. It’s usually more common in women, although men can obviously experience it as well, and it seems they’re really feeling it this year, perhaps more so because of the pandemic.

“In extreme cases, it can absolutely trigger marital discord and even lead to divorce. Support is available and I’d urge them to talk to someone. Above all, however, parents and carers should take pride from what their child has achieved.”

Jenny Shaw, Student Experience Director at Unite Students, added: “For 30 years, we’ve watched hundreds of thousands of parents wave goodbye to students. There’s every emotion from tears to cheers, but for most it can be difficult and emotional time. If there’s one thing I’d like to share from our experience it’s that young people are invariably more resilient and resourceful than their parents think.

“As the UK’s leading provider of student accommodation, our teams take great pride in doing what’s right by creating a safe and welcoming home for students. They are also great at spotting early signs of a problem and knowing how to respond. We work closely with universities and can help students find support and help if they need it.”

In trying to explain how it feels, further findings show that parents say empty nest syndrome feels like a mix of positive and negative emotions, including:

  • A part of you is missing (20%)
  • Emptiness (24%)
  • A loss of purpose (19%)
  • Rejection (16%)
  • You’ve abandoned a child (18%)
  • A child has abandoned you (22%)
  • A realisation that life will never be the same (25%)
  • A new beginning (28%)
  • An opportunity to rediscover yourself (24%)
  • A chance to have more time to yourself (22%)
  • A chance to do things you haven’t before (22%)

To help parents come to terms with their child leaving for university for the first time, Unite Students has created a handy guide “Students Leaving Home: A parent’s guide to empty nesting” available here. This includes ten helpful tips from Dr Thompson along with other useful information and support tools for parents.

DOWNLOAD: Parents’ Guide to Empty Nesting


For further information, imagery or interviews with Jenny Shaw from Unite Students, Dr Thompson or a case study, please contact McCann PR:

Notes to Editors

About Dr Dominique Thompson

Dr Dominique Thompson is a GP, young people’s mental health expert, TEDx speaker, author and educator. She has over 20 years of clinical experience caring for students, most recently as Director of Service at the University of Bristol Students’ Health Service. It was for this work that she was named Bristol Healthcare Professional of the Year 2017.

She is also a clinical advisor for the Royal College of GPs, and for Student Minds, the UK’s student mental health charity. She was the GP member of the NICE Eating Disorders’ guidelines development group, and the Universities UK StepChange and Minding Our Future  committees.

Dominique is also a member of the UK Mental Wellbeing in Higher Education group (MWBHE), and was on the board of a NHS mental health foundation trust.
She has helped design apps and websites to support student mental health, and has been interviewed widely, including by the Guardian and Radio 4’s Today programme. Her TEDx talk, What I learnt from 78,000 GP consultations with university students highlights some of the causes behind the recent rise in young people’s mental health distress, and suggests ways in which everyone can better support the younger generation.

Dominique is the author of HOW TO GROW A GROWN UP: Preparing your Teen for the Real World (PRH). She is also the author of a series of four mental health books for students: ‘Anxiety @ University’, ‘Depression @ University’, ‘Staying Well and Safe @ University’, and ‘Resourcefulness @ University’.