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When a child leaves the nest, how does it affect younger brothers and sisters?

It’s five years since my eldest child left home, but now it’s that time of year again, the shops filled with students buying value sets of crockery and stationery, harassed parents doing the Ikea run. I’m reminded of one of the most unexpected sides to our so-called emptying nest.

When my youngest child, seven years old at the time, became cowed with anxiety by day and unable to sleep at night, I thought at first it had something to do with his new class at primary school. It was a few weeks into the start of a school year, and our previously robust youngest had undergone a massive character change. He had been outgoing but was now withdrawn. He had been a joker; now nothing made him laugh. He started wanting reassurance at night.

It took days of probing to get to the root of the problem. No, he liked his new teacher. Yes, his friendships were all fine. When he admitted, reluctantly, that since his sister left home, it had felt to him as if a piece of the family was missing, I was dumbstruck. It simply hadn’t occurred to me that her leaving would make such a strong impact on him, especially as one sister was still at home.

“Every time I see any of the things she’s left behind, I feel upset,” he tried to explain.

At bedtime, he used to find the music and background chatter from his sisters’ rooms comforting. When one or both of them were out, he knew they would be there later. Now that the eldest had left, for good, as he saw it, he simply couldn’t get to sleep or think about anything but the gap that was left.

Empty nest syndrome is pretty well documented. Parents may well experience feelings of either grief or exuberance – a step towards regaining their freedom – as their brood take their first steps into the big wide world, but it hadn’t occurred to me to pay attention to the effect on her siblings when our first-born left.

On reflection, it seems obvious – even when other siblings remain at home, the departure of one of them affects family dynamics. Relationships shift and alter the way they have to adjust when a new baby is born, with roles altering and pecking orders changing. But there is no “empty nest” label for siblings to attach to their confused feelings, particularly those who are very young (the gap between our youngest and his 18-year-old sister perhaps exacerbated the problem), and my son, unable or unwilling to articulate his sense of loss, was suffering anxiety and sleeplessness instead. I suspect, with the instinctive perception of children, that he might also have avoided telling me why he was affected for fear of upsetting me – I may have mentioned how quiet the house seemed without the eldest or that I missed her, and he picked up some of that and didn’t want to make things worse.

Now I thought about it, I realised that her departure meant that other things had changed in the household, which must have felt unsettling to a young child. Our middle daughter, 16 at the time, had started going out more with her friends, and one or the other of us parents was usually preoccupied with work or study. The house became a place to sleep rather than the family home it had been. With only four of us, rarely all at home at once, we hardly ever gathered for family meals any more. We used to sit and watch TV or films together; now we never did.

What message had this given to our youngest? That it wasn’t worth the effort just for him?

The change must have felt catastrophic. Our first-born leaving was poignant for her parents. It was the end of an era, but it also meant we were embarking on a path that would eventually lead us back to living a child-free life again, to which in some ways we were looking forward.

For our youngest child, who had never known life without his older sister, the change was far more significant. It was uncharted and so potentially scary. It must also have felt final – he had no idea, as we did, that students come scurrying back home every holiday and often in between. As far as he was concerned, if one person could just leave, who was going to disappear next?

But all siblings are affected. Our 16 year old had lost a confidante and ally. The silence in the house was conspicuous now that the two girls’ gossip and summary of their day no longer took place nightly in their room. And, indeed, my middle daughter says it was a difficult transition for her too. “I felt really upset, driving away from her,” she admits. “And I missed her a lot,” she says.

The difference between her and the youngest was that she was able to express her feelings and fill the gap by increasing her social life and endlessly messaging her sister. But the result was that she too edged away from home, leaving the house all the emptier for her younger brother.

Once I began to think about the whole issue of siblings leaving, I remembered that when my elder brother went off on his travels, it catapulted me into adulthood. I was left at home with my younger brother, who at that stage seemed much less exciting, and I was lost. Who would I go to parties and gigs with now? My younger brother (who may also, like my youngest son, have had unexpressed feelings himself) withdrew into his room as he hit puberty, my mother returned to full-time work and my father was out more. When I got in from school, the house was silent, cold and tomb-like. I couldn’t wait to leave and made sure I did, as soon as I could.

Home was no longer the place of solace it had once seemed. Because, of course, accompanying the emotional changes when a child leaves, are economic and practical ones. Parents have to support their older kids through university and may take the opportunity – as mine did – to work more hours, in the process leaving the younger ones behind. The conflict is one I recognise only too well, as the need to earn more to support my older children through further education has been pitted against the responsibility of being around for the younger one. When you’ve been a parent for 18-plus years, it’s easy to feel that it’s time to ease off when they start to leave home, and to give yourself a bit of a break, pursuing interests you may have had to shelve during the child-rearing years, but younger children may feel – and indeed be – sidelined as a result.

There is also an effect on the parents’ relationship. Couples who have worked at staying together “for the sake of the kids”, may give up making the effort once there are fewer kids at home. A friend, the mother of two adult daughters, recounts: “We managed to hold our relationship together while the older one was at home, even though it wasn’t going well. I didn’t realise it at the time, but now I see there was a link between her leaving and our relationship ending. It wasn’t conscious, but it was there. I worry now that my younger daughter must have felt she didn’t matter as much as the older one because we held it together for her sister, but not for her!”

In the years since our first daughter left for university, she has been back to live at home and moved out again. The middle child has also left, but I made more of an attempt to be aware of how her brother may feel, and to remind him that her “leaving” didn’t mean she was disappearing for ever. But by then he was older and knew that such changes aren’t finite anyway.

There are, of course, advantages to a sibling leaving. Younger children have a chance to try on new identities, to expand into the space left, to have their own room – for the first time in some cases – to take on new roles, and, potentially, to grow closer to other siblings or their parents. My son is 13 now and reaping the benefits of having siblings who have left home. “It was difficult when I was little,” he says. “But now they’re living in London it’s like I’ve got a second home,” he says.

For me, it was a salutary lesson in how strong the bond between my own children really was and how much more sensitive I should have been to the change a child leaving would make to her siblings in the first place. It seemed to me that my children became closer when they started living apart, but perhaps, and more likely, it was simply that I hadn’t realised how close they had always been. We are often the worst witnesses to what is in front of our noses within the family. I am also aware that while for us, the parents, it was a step towards a couple-only lifestyle, for my youngest, life really would never be the same again.

Perhaps these two recollections from friends best illustrate the sense of the gap that can be left when a sibling leaves home. “My sisters shared an attic bedroom just above my room. When they’d both left, I used to lie in bed aware of, and terrified by, the dark, empty hole that was left. I loved it at Christmas when they came home and that dark hole filled with the light and noise of their presence again.”

Another friend, who shared a room with her older sister, recalls how when she left home she wondered who she was going to talk to at night. “I found it devastating when my sister left, and I used to carry on the conversations I would have been having with her when she was there,” she says. “For months after she left, I just kept on talking to an empty bed.”