“When my older brother left for college, I was really upset,” says Lavanya Manickam, a 17-year-old high school senior in New York City. “I was used to having him around, and, suddenly, he was gone. It was a big adjustment to be the only child at home and not have my brother there.”
Manickam’s experience is not uncommon. Many younger siblings are significantly affected when older siblings leave home and family roles begin to shift.
Empty nest syndrome — when parents or caregivers experience sadness, loss, anxiety and loneliness after their children leave the home — can affect siblings, too, even siblings who are not particularly close. “Everyone in a system is connected, and when one family member leaves the home it can disrupt the entire system, change the roles in a family, and families can experience a loss of what was their norms and typical routine,” says Diane Zosky, a professor of social work and interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Illinois State University.
The youngest siblings are more likely to experience sadness when older siblings leave, and feelings of sadness can increase with the closeness of the siblings. But siblings whose relationships were described as tense also experienced a sense of loss, Zosky has found.
Kathy Radigan, a 54-year-old mother of three and a writer in New York, says that when her oldest son moved six hours away for his junior year of college, her 15-year-old son and 18-year-old daughter felt the impact. “It’s a big change for them, and they really miss him being at home, especially during meals and family time. Watching your children miss each other can be really hard. Families have a certain rhythm and dynamic — and when the oldest leaves the home — all of a sudden that changes,” she says.
Siblings go through a transition when the oldest leaves, says Sarah Gundle, a clinical psychologist in New York City. The youngest may now be the only child left at home, or the middle sibling becomes the oldest sibling in the home — and their roles recalibrate.
“Siblings can experience empty nest syndrome when the oldest leaves — and for some siblings, it may be the first time they have experienced any type of loss,” she says. “There can be exceptions to this — such as when the sibling relationship is very acrimonious (or abusive) and a younger sibling may feel relieved when the older sibling leaves — but for many younger siblings, this can be a hard transition.”
Gundle adds that while this transition can take time to adjust to, “there can also be opportunities for growth.” Siblings who previously relied on an older sibling may become more independent and take on new challenges, responsibilities and interests. They may also spend more one-on-one time with parents.
The pandemic also has impacted how younger siblings adjust to an older sibling leaving. The public health crisis can intensify feelings of separation, loss and anxiety — particularly when older siblings are leaving after quarantining with their families for several months.
According to Gundle, “Quarantining together caused some families to turn inward, reconnect, renew relationships and do things that they otherwise would not have the opportunity to do — and when an older sibling is all of a sudden gone after this time together, younger siblings can feel an even sharper sense of loss.”
High school senior Manickam recalls how her family had Marvel movie marathons and cooked together while they were quarantining — things they previously might not have had time to do — and when her brother recently left for school, it was hard to return to being the only child at home.
As universities reopen amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, some are taking precautions such as not permitting family members in the dorms, limiting the amount of people on campus and enforcing social distancing. This can make the experience of a sibling leaving even more challenging.
“Schools definitely need to take these precautions, but it changes the experience for the family,” Radigan says. “With my oldest son, we couldn’t drive him to college together, help him set up his dorm room, walk around campus and experience those moments together as a family — and that made it even harder for my younger children.”
For children struggling with the transition after a sibling leaves home, there are ways that caregivers can support them.
Face it together. “Validate how younger siblings are feeling,” Zosky says. If they are feeling upset and missing their sibling, acknowledge it. Parents may also be struggling with feelings of loss, but recognizing the experience of their children can help them process this change.”
Take a virtual tour. Doing an online visit of the college campus, seeing the different buildings and surrounding areas, helps show younger siblings where their older sibling lives. (This is particularly helpful for young children who may not really understand what college is.) “A Google tour really helped,” Radigan says. “It made a huge difference to be able to see where their brother was, especially because we couldn’t go as a family to visit the school.”
Schedule a time to call. Picking a weekly time to check in helps maintain communication, but it’s also important to acknowledge that when siblings leave the home (to go to college, move in with friends, start a new job), they may be really busy and sometimes will be unable to text or call. Reassure younger siblings that their older sibling has not forgotten about them.
Create new routines. Plan a special night with activities that the siblings still at home like to do — such as a “favorite meal and movie night” and create family time together.
Use snail mail. Technology is useful for staying in touch, but writing a letter can be a meaningful way to connect. “Children, adolescents, young adults typically like getting something personalized in the mail with their name on it,” Gundle says. Sending a letter or card can also be a good reminder for children that there are other ways, aside from smartphones and computers, to stay close.
Seek support. Children and adolescents may not always share how they’re feeling with caregivers. If they need additional help, they can speak with their school social worker or a trusted family friend, or call or text YouthLine or Talk Now and speak with a counselor or trained peer volunteer.
Misha Valencia is a journalist whose work has been featured in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Marie Claire and Healthline.