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When you’re one child away from an empty nest, be careful

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Caroline Moulinet - published on 04/06/24

Having only one child left at home requires restructuring family dynamics while respecting the youngest's childhood and autonomy.

Your home used to house eight, six, or maybe four people, but now it’s down to three: you, your spouse, and your youngest child. There’s a different atmosphere, and things are organized differently.

Restructuring the family

Frank, who works in finance, is the father of four children aged between 10 and 23. His testimony is amusing: “It’s the fridge that’s changed the most, with three big guys gone! There’s just my wife, me, and our 10-year-old left, so I’ve had to get used to restricting quantities when I go shopping!”

For Claude Berthon, a clinical psychologist, it’s a momentous occasion when children move out, perhaps even more so when only the youngest is left:

When only the youngest child is left at home, the family unit is reorganized as it would be with an only child. There are several possible pitfalls in this situation, depending on the family atmosphere. Firstly, the child can be put on an equal footing with the adults. He becomes his parents’ confidant, witnessing tensions and adult conversations. He might end up watching films that aren’t made for his age, because his parents are less careful.

Indeed, it can seem almost normal to be less vigilant when the majority of the children have left and the little one has grown up a lot. 

Berthon warns of another situation. “In some families I’ve seen in my practice, the youngest was sometimes used as an outlet. When one parent came home stressed from work, the tension would explode onto the only child still present.” A good tip to keep in mind: don’t forget to hold on to the patience and sensitivity necessary to help your youngest to continue to blossom and grow.

The youngest is not there to fill a void in the marriage

For Claude Berthon, another pitfall of having only one child at home is that parents can over-invest in the relationship:

Sometimes parents find it hard to let their youngest child grow up. They’ve invested a lot in them, and it’s hard for them to let go. But the little one won’t always be little; he’ll have to grow up, and you’ll have to let go. This home situation becomes even more complicated when the marriage is going through a rough spot. The youngest child sometimes even becomes an object of rivalry between the parents: each fight to get more love from the child, to spoil him more, in order to fill their marital void. In the worst situations, the child can be an instrument against the other, a tool to hurt the partner.

Nurturing relationships

“When I was 37, I changed direction and went back to work,” says Silvia, a mother of four. “We’d moved around a lot, and the children were all at school. Apart from the financial aspect, I realized that I would need a job to be able to let my children leave home. Having personal balance allows me to let them be free to leave.”

Psychologist Claude Berthon recommends reassuring children that they can grow up and leave, that their parents’ relationship will be fine, and that their parents have no doubts about their love for them.

You have to get past the moment of desolation to the moment of wonder. The children leave one by one, at their own pace, and the parents have worked hard to achieve this! It’s a time for them to discover themselves as a couple, differently. It’s a time to be proud of your grown-up children as they begin their adult lives. This way, the remaining child will be reassured to see his parents fulfilled, to feel that the departure of the grown children essentially brings them happiness.

Healthy autonomy

If the youngest child is already in high school, parents will be careful to give him the autonomy that corresponds to his age, not necessarily the same as that of an older child in college. As for middle-schoolers, they don’t want to find themselves stuck between mom and dad at home. Claude Berthon reminds us: “Adolescence is the age of encounters and experiences outside the family unit.”

If the youngest is still in primary school, he or she will also benefit from connections outside the home. The psychologist explains: “Whatever the age, it’s a good idea to multiply external connections so that children can see that there is life outside the confines of the family. Scouting, extracurricular activities, cousins, grandparents: these are bonds that children appreciate, and which help them to avoid remaining in a triangular relationship that would lock them in.”

A loving environment

Parents need to create a loving environment so that their children don’t feel they’re being sent away, as if their parents were trying to push them off to the side. “It’s important to talk to your children, and to encourage them to choose activities that will enable them to forge new bonds and grow. It’s also good for children to hear that this is good for their parents too, that they need it as a couple,” stresses the psychologist. 

The nest will soon be nearly empty, and the youngest child will still be at home. This is an important time for the couple: a privileged time to rediscover time together. “It’s a time couples should welcome as a gift, without guilt,” encourages Claude Berthon. “When a couple is doing well, the parents and the youngest child enjoy getting together and spending time together. Family time becomes a time of exchange and love, and the child will see that his parents are in love and happy to be together.”

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Catholic LifestyleChildrenFamily
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