With children trapped indoors, college students banned from campuses, and young adults forced to put careers on hold, family dynamics face new and intense pressures. Those who make their new reality work best are prioritizing what matters most and offering each other understanding and hope.
By PT Staff published July 2, 2020 - last reviewed on July 8, 2020
“We’re just sort of running in a Groundhog Day rhythm here,” says Therese Morrissey. She and her husband, Tim Reifschneider, welcomed their daughter, Emma, 19, back to their Stewart Manor, New York, home this spring after her sophomore year at the State University of New York at New Paltz shifted to remote learning. “I think Emma and I know how to read each other pretty well,” she says, “so when she is really done with me, I leave and find something else to do. But we have the weirdest arguments. We were watching a TV show and there was a moment we disagreed about, so we wound up having this screaming fight—over something that happened in a made-up show. It was like, Whoa, what’s happening here?”
by Deborah J. Cohan, Ph.D.
COLLEGE, ESSENTIALLY, is all about individuating from one’s family of origin and forging a new path. How is that going now that most students are trying to do college far away from campus? For many, not very well.
“When you think of college you don’t think of sitting at home with your family all day,” my student Eliza* tells me. “There is no freedom. I have all the same rules and restrictions I had before. I went from being independent right back to high school.”
It’s not that life at home is necessarily bad, although it certainly can be for students with a difficult relationship with their parents. It’s that this is not how it was supposed to be. Students had made the transition to adulthood and put their childhood behind them. Now it’s in their face, along with the awkward reality that their parents may have begun to move on from those days as well. “I feel as if I don’t belong,” Eliza says. “The bedroom that was once mine is now decorated as a beachy guest room. It makes me sad when I reminisce about the days when I was in high school and had pink walls and glitter lamps and postcards and Polaroids decorating the whole room.”
As a professor, I’ve had the privilege to observe so much about students’ lived experiences on campus. Working with them at such a formative time in their life has always meant holding space for their fear, pain, loss, distress, and grief while trying to show them some light and offer them pockets for breathing room and for hope. But now we all find ourselves in a depth of crisis that is still being reckoned with, and we’re reeling from it.
College is supposed to be about educating a new citizenry and socializing for, and toward, hope. A sixty-something friend and fellow academic, Kathryn Feltey of the University of Akron, recently posted a photo of her 18-year-old self online with the caption, “I am leaving my childhood behind as I search for my life and who I will be.”
This is a generation of students now blocked from taking those steps. The various crises in which they have come of age have never made it easy. Toddlers in 2001, they have been largely overparented in a culture of fear in which worries have ranged from terrorism to school shootings. Conversations about safety and protection dominated their childhood. They emerged from it all more tethered, less comfortable with solitude, and by all accounts lonelier. After growing up hyperscheduled, they demonstrate less ease with creative risk-taking and unstructured assignments.
They want to live out Feltey’s ethos but also feel rigidly confined. The generation that might have the most to gain from firmly breaking away from their families of origin have been driven right back, where they are likely experiencing a resurgence of surveillance.
College students returning home may have expected that their parents would acknowledge a changed dynamic and respect their privacy, but for many, the reality has been disappointing. Eliza tells me that her mother has been scrutinizing her every move, from whom she texts to what she eats to what she watches on Netflix.
Some parents who grew used to monitoring their children’s academics seem to forget that their kids have been doing it on their own for quite a while; others, relieved to be unburdened of responsibility for their children’s grades, have become distractions. “My parents do not fully understand the quiet I need to write a paper or take a quiz,” Tess* says. “I was working on a project, and my mom walked in the room in the middle of an interview. I even explained to her what I was doing and asked her not to bother me, but she still proceeded with the conversation.”
If the dynamics of sheltering in place are awkward, though, students have to bear some of the blame. Specifically, a childhood spent allowing their parents to do everything for them is coming back to haunt some. “When I come home for school breaks, I’m used to not doing anything productive and letting my mother do everything for me,” Eliza admits, “from making my bed to making my coffee and doing my laundry.” Now, her mother questions why she drinks so much coffee and sleeps so much.
Even those who may appreciate the comforts of home overwhelmingly strive to recover the freedom they’ve worked hard to achieve. “I love being with my family, but I can’t do this every day. I feel trapped and irritable,” Faith* says. “I actually miss the uncertainties of my college life. I had something to look forward to every day.”
“It feels like I’ve reverted back to high school,” says Sydney Ocampo, 20. In December, she came home to West Suffield, Connecticut, from New York University Shanghai to spend holiday break with her parents, George and Karey. When conditions ruled out a return to China, she was able to shift to NYU’s Manhattan campus. After six weeks, she returned home to finish the semester remotely. “I'm technically independent here, but I can’t go anywhere. My mom says that when I was at college I talked to her more than I do now. I was calling her once a day or every other day, mostly just to complain. Now there’s obviously a lot to complain about, but there’s not much to update her about. Without the structure of class, I’m really just not doing much.”
Some family situations pose sterner challenges: Megan*, for example, discloses that between her hypercritical mother, who slams her appearance and tells her she needs to lose weight, and the presence of her alcoholic stepfather, she feels trapped, insecure, and depressed at home.
Other students can’t even go home. Having grown up in an abusive family where he sometimes fantasized about death as a route to happiness, David* successfully petitioned to remain in his dorm, but he knows that’s only a temporary fix. “I have been thrust into an unknown world before I was prepared for it,” he says. “I have no money, no job, and my housing situation is not sustainable.”
Despite a loving but now long-distance relationship with Faith, David says, “Daily life is unrecognizable. I have lost hope, drive, and motivation. I go to bed in the early hours of the morning, sleep until noon, wake up, eat, and climb back into bed, only to emerge a few hours later to eat again. I feel my mental health is deteriorating.”
I identify with his fears; had I been forced to return home because of a pandemic while I was a student, I would have been terrified of witnessing my parents’ blowout fights; the stress of their marriage became even more apparent to me once I left for school. Going to college, for me and so many others, has been a ticket to a new life, a new place, and a new self.
Campus becomes not just a new home, but an oasis where we can grow intellectually, emotionally, politically, sexually, and creatively. The forced return to families of origin, Eliza says, “stifles the newly discovered parts of us. Those of us who have been kicked off campus and have smothering parents are forced to hide what we have discovered with higher education.” For David, “College gave me a sense of self-expression, freedom, and independence from the constant fear that had shackled me my entire life.”
How parents handle this sensitive moment—ideally by allowing their children to do the serious work of becoming an adult—will have a tremendous effect on how a generation is able to move forward whenever campus life resumes. College is a dwelling of, for, and about hope. Conversations with my students tell me that overall, the kids are all right. But they’ll be much better off when they can truly fly back toward that structure of hope.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
Deborah J. Cohan, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort and the author of Welcome to Wherever We Are: A Memoir of Family, Caregiving, and Redemption.
“I grew up on a farm, so some of these changes are easy for me," says Carolin Wood of Queens, New York, who has been helping her children, Marlow, 11, and Ray, 9, adjust since they were sent home from school. Limiting supermarket trips, for example, is no problem: “On the farm, we got groceries every two weeks.” Other elements of the shift have not been as comfortable. Dissatisfaction with her children’s assignments now has Wood seeking an alternative. “I had been wanting to try homeschooling already. I’d rather they were able to work on projects that they’re excited about. I wasn’t liking what was considered normal before, and I don’t want things to go back the way they used to be.”
Trapped in Adolescence
by Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.
YOUNG CHILDREN MAY get a little stir-crazy and fractious with one another while being captive at home to prevent exposure to the coronavirus. However, at that age, they are more used to their lives being family-centered than are adolescents, for whom sheltering in place can be more severely disruptive on two counts.
First, adolescence is about gathering more social freedom out in the world, but this offline experience is now forbidden. Second, adolescence is about growing apart from parents and spending more time with one’s peers, but while trapped at home, family members become the only physical company they have.
With offline social life restricted by quarantine, it is only natural for homebound adolescents to seek more online options for compensatory contact and freedom with friends. Some parents may believe that this virtual contact provides a sufficient alternative to actual connection with friends, but it does not. Electronically mediated communication leaves out a lot of visual, nonverbal, and affective information that face-to-face contact more richly conveys.
Understanding Their Crisis
The pandemic represents a crisis, a simultaneous multiplicity of life-threatening changes that must be coped with and, we hope, survived. Crisis can be operationally defined as four concurrent kinds of change:
- Something stops, and one must contend with something old ending, such as when a parent’s job and a family’s primary income is lost.
- Something starts, and one must contend with something new beginning, such as being forced to stay primarily within one’s home.
- Something increases, and one must contend with additional demands, such as home study requirements from school.
- Something decreases, and one must contend with reduced supports, such as limited access to physical conditioning from athletics programs.
Parents and adolescents (and other children who are old enough) can and should discuss as a family what is stopping, starting, increasing, and decreasing as a function of a crisis that has made normal life harder to conduct. It’s important for family members to know how this crisis stresses everyone else. They can do so by identifying any of the four kinds of significant changes they experience, expressing how they are feeling in response to each hardship, and prioritizing and strategizing together on how best to adjust and adapt. When a family goes through a time of crisis, talking about it together and brainstorming definitely help.
Just as childhood teaches the importance of building a trustworthy dependence, adolescence teaches the necessity for growing independence, and family teaches the lasting power of interdependence. As important as peers are to adolescents, it must be remembered that they are mostly of passing value when compared with family connections.
Confinement Creates Intimacy
The current crisis is a time to bring family members together. This can be a hard transition for adolescents to make, as they have been focused on growing their independence and individuality. To that end, a first unifying message from parents might be: “As stressful as it can be, a crisis is not a time for us to grow apart. It is a time to strengthen family because none of us are as strong as all of us.” Another hopeful unifying message might be: “We all have something to offer one another to weather this hard time. Let’s talk about what special contributions each of us can make.” Moving forward from these principles, specific tasks can assume a larger symbolic meaning for adolescents: Doing this shows how I’m helping my family carry on.
At a period of growth when adolescents need more privacy and separation, parents ought to consider what their teens might be observing of family life during quarantine, such as: It’s like taking a trip together in the family car, except it’s not a vacation; I feel marooned on a desert island with only my family; or Everybody’s getting on everybody’s nerves even more.
However it’s approached, prolonged confinement creates forced familiarity and more exposure to one another’s behavior. For this reason, the management of family quarantine is really the management of increased intimacy—the sensitive and vulnerable process of becoming more deeply knowing and being more deeply known. How best to manage that? I believe the best advice for parents and their adolescents remains to treat others as you would like them to treat you.
Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice and the author of books, including Who Stole My Child?: Parenting Through Four Stages of Adolescence.
“It’s not that we weren’t involved in their lives before,” says Ross Wallenstein of Plainview, New York, who has been working from home with his wife, Stacey, and children Rebecca, 10, Evan, 6, and Benjamin, 4, “but now we see everything 24/7. We’re seeing how the sausage is made. We can pop in and watch my 10-year-old getting instruction from her teacher, which we couldn't do eight weeks ago.” The kids have generally coped well, he says, “but they get stir crazy like everyone else, and I think they show that by fighting at dinner and not wanting to take a bath or go to bed or turn the TV off. At their age, that's just how they express it.”
A Pause That May Refresh Childhood
by Peter Gray, Ph.D.
A PANDEMIC IS a terrible thing, but it never hurts to look for silver linings. I have written for years about the harm created by our overscheduling of children’s lives. Over decades, we have increased the time that children must spend in school and on their schoolwork at home, while at the same time replacing out-of-school free play with ever more adult-directed activities. The consequences have included gradual but dramatic increases in anxiety, depression, and suicide among school-age children, as well as a decline in their sense of control over their own lives, as has been documented by much research, including my own.
Then, along came the coronavirus, which closed the schools and canceled the after-school activities that have kept children so busy. Suddenly today’s children acquired what children had decades ago—free time in which to get bored, daydream, play, discover and pursue hobbies, figure out for themselves what to do, and think about the meaning of life (children can be great philosophers).
Families are still adjusting to quarantine and trying to figure out how to deal with so much together-time at home. But I have already heard some very encouraging stories from parents and children. I have heard about kids picking up musical instruments they have long wanted time to play, painting pictures for the first time in years, riding bicycles, discovering nature in the dirt and trees of their own yards, voluntarily cooking family meals with great pride, reading for their own enjoyment and interest rather than for homework, and on and on. I have also heard from families who are reading aloud together, playing games, and discovering the pleasures of just being together with no place to go and not much needing to be done. All of this is real education, and it had been sorely missing from children’s lives. I have also heard from at least one child psychologist who has said that, since schools closed, she has seen a sharp reduction in anxiety among her clients.
I don’t want to mislead anyone: Many children and families are suffering, whether cooped up with people who don’t get along well, feeling the crush of poverty in a collapsed economy, or deprived of the opportunity to gather physically with friends. But in our recognition of the negative, let us not deny the potential positives.
My fervent hope is that this pause in the busyness that we have imposed on children will lead us, as individuals and a society, to gain a renewed recognition of what childhood is all about. Children are designed to play and explore in their own chosen ways. That’s how they learn to take initiative, be creative, and solve their own problems. In short, it’s how they learn to become adults. When we deprive children of such opportunities by constantly directing them, we prevent them from developing the self-confidence required to face the world. That is why today’s children and young adults were exhibiting record levels of depression and anxiety, even before the pandemic arrived.
There is also a lesson to be learned about schooling: As a society, we have gone nearly berserk in our obsession about test scores and what we call “academic achievement,” which has very little to do with actual intellectual development. Children spend much more time at school and on homework than in the past, but they are not learning more. They are, however, burning out earlier. They are learning how to cram for tests, but that doesn’t equate to real education in any meaningful way. One thing I believe that parents will take away from their children’s missing a few months of school is that it didn’t much matter. They will not be behind. The truth is that very little is learned and remembered in a few months of school. What children learn outside of the classroom tends to be much more valuable.
I’m hoping that this pause will help us realize that policies that make children unhappy are cruel and need to be changed. Children need much more free time for play and self-directed pursuits, in school and after school, than we have allowed them. They learn best when they are happy and have some say in what they are taught. And their happiness should be the number-one priority of parents and school personnel. Their real education depends on it.
Peter Gray, Ph.D., is a research professor at Boston College and the author of Free to Learn.
“Everything is exaggerated right now—our intimacy and our conflicts,” says Natalie Clark, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her children, Isabella, 18, and Luke, 16, and her husband, Joe Todaro. “I've had an opportunity to speak on a more emotional level with my children because they've run up against the limits of talking to people on a screen, and their friends are also screened out and don’t necessarily have a lot to give. Isabella was about to leave home, and I was clawing for time with her. Now we have more time than we know what to do with. And my son has discovered a certain Zen-ness in boring household chores: It’s a thing to do when there’s nothing to do.”
They Can Go Home Again
by Susan Newman, Ph.D.
FAMILY HAS ALWAYS been a lifeline, and the coronavirus has led thousands of young adults to grab on tight. Whether just out of college, newly furloughed or laid off, or a few years into their first jobs, sons and daughters have returned to their parents’ home to wait out the spread of the virus and its damage to the economy. For most, this wasn’t their first choice, but their parents—even those who have lost jobs themselves—have few reservations about offering adult children the comfort and emotional security of home. They see this time together, while it comes with enormous uncertainty and challenge, as a rare opportunity to fast-forward their parent-child relationship.
“My parents are psyched to have me back; they didn’t expect it to ever happen,” says Jenna*, 24, now working full time from her childhood bedroom for a nonprofit organization. “The pandemic has delivered them a gift, although under unfortunate circumstances, of more time together.”
Security and Support
The crisis has frozen the dreams of young workers across the world. “It hit me when I was unpacking my belongings from college,” says Lawrence*, who graduated in May without pomp or circumstance. “I don’t know when I will be able to leave my parents’ house. My plans to find a job have been put on hold, and nobody knows for how long.”
Disheartening prospects can make young adults feel like failures before they have even had a chance to show what they can do. But living with parents early in one’s career is not new; in fact, even before the pandemic struck, it had become the most common living arrangement for 18- to 34-year-olds in the United States, according to data from the Pew Research Center. It’s an arrangement that seems to work better for families today than it did in earlier generations, experts suggest, because parenting styles have changed. Research by Karen Fingerman, a professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas, has identified the shift: Parents have become less autocratic than their predecessors, they have more frequent contact with children because of communications technology, and, in general, they have developed closer ties that make them more appealing roommates. Living together doesn’t appear to jeopardize family relationships, either, she found: “Intergenerational co-residence does not undermine the grown children’s ties to parents or their daily mood.”
Getting to Know You Better
“When I was furloughed from my first job, I chose to go home even though my apartment is only a 40-minute drive from their house,” says Willa*, 25. “I wanted to be with my parents. I felt that if I were home, I could serve a purpose: I’m company for my mom during the day while my dad is at work, and I help out around the house—and yes, there’s more space inside and out at home than in my apartment. When I look beyond the ordeal that is the virus, being home is gratifying.”
Many who have returned home are consciously using the idle time to deepen their connection with the people who, along with siblings, represent their closest and longest relationships. “I can talk to them more as a friend would and less like their child,” Willa says. “I ask them questions and expect their answers to be advice rather than telling me what to do. And they see me more clearly as an adult and better understand my choices. There’s more respect on both sides.”
Alexandra*, 23, is the only one of the four children in her family who has returned home, from which she now works remotely. She’s taking advantage of the time to ask her parents questions about their early jobs and their lives before they met and before they had kids. “I’ve learned so much about them—things I never knew. They have been very forthcoming.”
And yet, there are glitches and conflicts, as one always encounters in close quarters. In the two years she lived on her own, Alexandra became quite strict about her diet and exercise routines, which her parents didn’t understand at all. “In the beginning, it was a struggle,” she says. “My regimen drove them up the wall; it was a learning curve for them. It took a month or so for them to catch on. Now when we’re having dinner, my mom knows what I need, and she’ll notice and admit that there aren’t enough greens in the meal.”
The Ground Rules
Families that have made this new arrangement work credit the understanding of some core concepts. First, simply living together doesn’t mean you can read one another’s mind. Both parents and adult children need to put what they want into words, whether it’s help around the house or more emotional support. Parents need to be understanding of the pressures and fears their adult children are experiencing—and children are equally obligated to acknowledge their parents’ real anxiety about the crisis.
Sharing chores and perhaps expenses is important, but so is respecting one another’s boundaries, especially involving potentially sensitive topics of conversation. Issues like these are compounded when parents and children revert to earlier dynamics. Parents must resist returning to default supervising behavior, and children can’t go back to their teen habits and start leaving clothes and dishes all over the house for mom and dad to pick up. Still, some habits are hard to break, and twentysomethings who’ve been living on their own for years should allow themselves to appreciate the humor of parents telling them how to measure flour or clean a bathroom.
It’s a difficult time. But young adults who have returned home and made it work have been surprised at how smoothly it has gone and how grateful they are for people they long took for granted: “I love my parents,” Lawrence says, “and we’re telling each other that a weird amount.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
Susan Newman, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and the author of Under One Roof Again: All Grown Up and (Re)learning to Live Together Happily and other books.
Submit your response to this story to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like us to consider your letter for publication, please include your name, city, and state. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.
Pick up a copy of Psychology Today on newsstands now or subscribe to read the rest of the latest issue.