They may have argued endlessly when they had to share a bathroom, but siblings leaving the family home can be more unsettling for the ones left behind than you might expect. Anna Moore investigates…
Milly still recalls vividly the only time she saw her father cry. It was last October and he’d just delivered her elder sister Ella to university more than 150 miles away.
‘He was quite matter-of-fact about it when he got back, but then he went into Ella’s bedroom to straighten it out,’ says 16-year-old Milly. ‘She’d packed up what she wanted to take and left everything else in a huge mess. I saw Dad bent over her desk, hands full of her stuff, silently sobbing. It was so unlike him that it made me more upset that she’d gone. For the next few weeks, it felt like we were all grieving.’
But while her parents were contemplating the end of family life as they’d known it, Milly, their only remaining child at home, was experiencing her own upheaval.
‘Ella and I are quite different: we don’t like the same music, share clothes or go out together, so I was surprised by how much I missed her,’ says Milly. ‘Part of it was the feeling that, as usual, she got to do everything first – and now she’d gone to have a cool time in Manchester while I was stuck at home.
‘But there was also an emptiness. There were times of the day that we had always spent together, such as after school, while Mum and Dad were still at work, when we would sit in the kitchen drinking tea and chatting; after she’d gone, I would get home and sit on my own. On Sunday mornings we’d often watch Netflix together in our pyjamas. Now the person who I could talk to about things I couldn’t tell my parents had gone away to start a new life without me, and that felt horrible.’
And Milly is not alone. Last year the brief disappearance of Devon teenager Arthur Heeler-Frood served as a stark reminder that ‘empty-nest syndrome’ is not exclusive to parents.
Arthur, 15, was the youngest of three siblings. His brother Reuben, 20, had already gone to university and his sister Hester, 18, was about to go, too. On 6 September, Arthur ran away from home, taking £350 and explaining in a letter to his parents that he was ‘bored of [his] life’.
In press appeals, his distraught mother described Arthur’s close relationship with his siblings and his anxiety over being left behind. ‘We think he wanted his own adventure,’ she said. ‘Hester was leaving for university and Arthur was going to be the last one at home. I think he wasn’t looking forward to being left alone with us.’ Fortunately, Arthur was reunited with his parents two months later.
Suzie Hayman, counsellor and author of How to Have a Happy Family Life, confirms that it’s something many parents overlook. ‘Everybody thinks empty-nest syndrome is about the parents and that it happens when all the children have gone,’ she says. ‘In fact, it starts kicking in when the first child goes and it can profoundly affect everyone left behind, including siblings.
‘It’s a real shake-up,’ Hayman continues. ‘The children who were the youngest become the eldest. One of two or three may suddenly feel like an only child; an equal balance of two parents and two children can feel like two against the one left behind. A younger sibling loses that role model, that ally – or that enemy. They may have spent a lot of time arguing, but they were probably understanding or defining each other in the fighting; it’s still a form of connection. When the house starts emptying, for a sibling it can feel like the end of family as they’ve known it – the end of the only life they’ve ever experienced.’
While much research has explored the impact of the empty nest on parents’ mental health, marriage, family finances and careers, Dr Diane Zosky, director of social work at Illinois State University, is one of the few to have asked how it affects siblings. ‘Our relationship with our siblings is probably the most enduring one we have,’ says Zosky. ‘Siblings are our contemporaries. Our parents usually predecease us, but we can maintain a close relationship with siblings for 80 or 90 years.’
Zosky questioned more than 100 young people and found that the youngest siblings – ie, the last to leave – felt a far greater sadness as the house emptied than their older siblings. ‘Their brothers and sisters provided valued emotional support, a role-model function,’ says Zosky. ‘The most common response they described was a longing, aching experience when someone they’d been attached to since birth was no longer there.’
Celia Dodd, journalist and author of The Empty Nest: How to Survive and Stay Close to Your Adult Child, remembers those feelings all too well. ‘My sister and two brothers were much older than me and had all left home by the time I was 11,’ she says. ‘It does have a huge effect. It’s partly because you absorb your parents’ sadness, but for me, the whole house felt different.
‘There was a real sense of loss,’ she continues. ‘For my first ten years, we’d been a big, bustling family. The house had always had lots of laughter, fighting, jollity, piano playing – and now it was so silent. My parents felt elderly and it seemed like it was just me and them. I remember counting down the days until my siblings came home for holidays and if they were late I’d be upset. Then, when I was 15, my sister and one of my brothers emigrated to Canada and I remember sobbing and sobbing. It felt like the end of family life.’
Sometimes, quite unwittingly, parents can contribute to this ‘winding down of family life’ as they begin to fill the gaps with work, new interests or rediscovering each other. This was the case for Danny, now 22, whose two brothers are six and eight years older.
‘When my brothers left, my parents were sad and wanted new goals. My mum decided to walk the South West Coast Path, so she started disappearing with the dogs at weekends. Then she began volunteering as well as doing her normal job. I was 14 and there seemed to be fewer family meals, fewer activities planned, less going on at home. They weren’t bad parents; they just had a lot more time and energy for new things. In a way, it was good to slip under the radar, but I definitely noticed a difference.’
So what can parents do to ease the transition for their remaining children? First, it helps to be aware of it, says Dodd. ‘Family emotions are so intertwined,’ she says. ‘Just because your partner or your children say they’re OK it doesn’t mean it’s true.’
If you’re struggling with your own sense of loss, be aware of how that can impact your child. ‘Even realising that it isn’t just about you can help you cope better,’ says Dodd. ‘Acknowledge that you’re feeling sad and that it’s good to talk about it, but don’t get so lost in grief that your remaining child feels inadequate or as though they’re second best. Cry in the bedroom, not the kitchen.’
Dodd also has practical tips. ‘Think about the times of day your child might feel the absence of the missing sibling the most,’ she says. ‘A lot of the time – in fact, most of the time – they may be busy, distracted and immersed in their own world. But there are probably certain spaces in the routine that used to be filled by brothers and sisters.’
It can help to change the routine and carve out something new together. ‘When I was writing my book, I spoke to one mother and her daughter, who was the youngest of three. They got into the routine of watching an episode of The West Wing together when the mum got home from work. And on the days when the mum wasn’t working and her daughter had no lessons, they’d go out for sushi. The older sisters thought the youngest was being spoilt, but their mother simply had more time with the younger one, so they found things to do together.’
In fact, there is great opportunity here. Unlike the eldest, the youngest sibling may never have had the benefit of time alone with their parents and often has to fit in with the family. Older siblings leaving the house is an opportunity to redress the balance. ‘That can range from doing more things together – treats such as going to the theatre become much more affordable when it’s just two or three of you – to the meals you eat at home as, inevitably, there will have been dishes one child liked but another didn’t.’ And there are other benefits such as the remaining child not having to share a bedroom, or moving into a bigger one vacated by a sibling.
At the same time, though, parents need to be wary of stifling the last child. ‘It’s a double-edged sword,’ Dodds cautions. ‘Too much focus and parental attention may not be welcome. Parents need to be careful and try to find the right balance.’
Older siblings forging ahead can provide valuable guidance. Ella has been able to give Milly a taste of what university life could be like, and Milly is planning to stay with her for a weekend. Research shows that as children leave home to start their adult life, distance can allow siblings to reconnect on a different level and to value each other in a way they didn’t when they were sharing a bathroom or fighting for parental attention. ‘Siblings start to forge an adult relationship that is separate from their relationship with their parents,’ says Dodd. ‘In fact, social media often allows them to follow their lives and stay in more constant touch than their parents do.’
The key, says Suzie Hayman, is to appreciate that the nest emptying affects everyone. ‘Be aware of it and never assume it’s just you who’s struggling,’ she says. ‘All change, even when you can see a lot of good things in it, is hard. It’s the end of an era – for everyone.’
How to help the child left in the nest
They may have rowed constantly with their siblings or claimed they couldn’t wait to be rid of them, but just because your remaining child says that he or she is fine, don’t assume there aren’t feelings bubbling below the surface.
Make it easy for your child to voice their feelings. Talk about your own sadness, but don’t let your grief be so visible that they feel inadequate. Keep the subject open but casual.
Fill the gaps
Try to identify any times when your child feels the absence of their siblings the most, such as after school or at weekends. Find ways to compensate and initiate new routines.
Make the most of it
Enjoy one-on-one time with your youngest child (probably something you’ve never had much of before). Create new interests that connect you, such as cooking foods you both enjoy, but don’t stifle them.
Help your child realise that it isn’t the end of family life. Their siblings will be back for holidays, though there will be a different dynamic. Life moves on, but there are exciting things around the corner for them, too.
Bryony Lewis, 17, is the youngest of three and lives at home in London. Her brother Jack is 23 and her sister Katie is 20.
Growing up, my siblings and I got on very well. We were allies – it was us and our parents. I’m really good friends with Katie; we were a pair. I’m quite loud, but she’s chilled and a really relaxing person to be around.
Jack was a typical eldest child. He always gave a lot of advice. If I had a problem, I’d go to him; he is wise and such a positive presence. I suppose I was the young, immature one.
Jack was the first to leave: he went to university in Aberystwyth, so was quite far away. I was 13 and, although I was excited for him, I didn’t want him to go. I think Mum was quite upset. I remember her saying, ‘I want my boy back.’ It felt weird knowing he wasn’t around any more, that there was no one behind his bedroom door.
Just before Katie left when I was 16, I remember thinking, ‘I’ll be an only child. What will that be like?’ Even though Katie isn’t loud, the house got so much quieter. You knew there was nothing going on anywhere. I really missed her calm presence and I felt bored – who could I annoy? I paced around a lot; I couldn’t settle or keep still.
I became more creative. I want to study music at university and the songs I started writing when they left were all about childhood, being in the park, going to primary school. There is one called ‘Home’, which has a verse about the silent walls, sitting on my own, feeling empty.
My siblings leaving was a shake-up; it forced me into a more grown-up role. I still feel and act younger when they come home, though. I try to be extra nice to my parents when my siblings are not there. When I go out in the evenings, I don’t want to be home too late as I feel bad for them. I worry about what will happen to them when I go to university. I know they’ve got each other, but thinking about them on their own makes me sad.