Brad E Sachs Ph.D.

Emptying The Nest

How to Manage the Certainty of Uncertainty

Beyond 18 during COVID-19: Part 2.

Posted Jun 19, 2020

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Source: Unsplash

Today’s installment of “Beyond 18 during COVID-19” will focus on dealing with the uncertainty young adults and their families face as we all struggle our way through the pandemic.

One of the most challenging aspects of family life with young adults right now is the complete lack of clarity when it comes to their future—a state of instability that exists through no fault of their own.

Here are just a few of the typical scenarios that I hear about in my office these days:

Georgio’s college closed right after spring break in March, at which point he returned home to complete the semester online. There is no clarity yet as to whether or not his college will open up to students in the fall or continue with off-campus, online learning. The prospect of paying tuition for remote coursework is decidedly unappealing to his parents, who did not feel that Georgio conscientiously invested himself in virtual learning during the second part of spring semester, leaving them with the sense that they did not get their money’s worth. Instead, they have suggested that he enroll in the local community college for the fall semester, which he has little interest in doing, and has avoided pursuing so far.

Kaneisha graduated from college two years ago with a degree in hospitality management, and had been thriving as an event manager at a large hotel while living in an apartment with two of her college girlfriends. Two weeks after Covid-19 arrived, the hotel closed, and she was furloughed. Unable to continue to pay her rent, she returned home, and has received mixed messages from the hotel management regarding the likelihood that she will be re-hired. Her social life, her income, and her self-respect have all suddenly evaporated.

Evan finished high school online, and was accepted to one of the top colleges he applied to. However, that college is unlikely to invite freshman on campus in the fall and is planning to start the year with remote instruction. He has begun looking into gap year programs as an alternative, but thus far has been unable to find one that would be of any interest to him. He was laid off from the part-time job he had as a busboy during his senior year, and while the restaurant may re-open at some point this summer, this is not a certainty and, even if it does, there is no assurance that he’ll be re-hired. For now, the summer before college that he was so looking forward to looms like a vacant desert in front of him.

Uncertainty is invariably accompanied by anxiety. And when someone is anxious, the presence of a calm, centered, less-anxious individual is of inestimable value when it comes to taking the edge off of that anxiety, and preventing the possibility of emotional overload.

Of course, anxiety is also highly contagious, and children are quite skilled at out-sourcing their anxiety to their parents in an effort to relieve their distress. Parents, in response, may consciously or unconsciously upload that anxiety and wind up shouldering the psychological load that belongs with their young adult, not with them. It is important to remember that anxiety, in a workable amount, is what spurs us to summon our strengths to make important changes—without a certain baseline of anxiety at work, we risk becoming complacent, and possibly stagnating. So when Mom and/or Dad too quickly and eagerly sponge up their young adult’s anxiety, s/he actually becomes less motivated to do what may need to be done because s/he is temporarily liberated from discomfort and fretfulness. 

With these (usually invisible) family processes in mind, it’s important for parents to find a way to remain supportive and engaged during this disquieting time without:

  • Amplifying their young adult’s anxiety, or
  • Absorbing so much of their offspring’s anxiety that the young adult no longer mobilizes him/herself in an effort to resume developmental progress

Here are five approaches to keep in mind that may point the way towards meaningfully constructive support:

1. Try to avoid asking too many questions too frequently (especially repetitive questions that the young adult probably doesn’t have an answer to, such as “Have you heard anything from your school yet?” or “Did HR get back to you about whether you’re going to be re-hired?”)

2. Try to avoid unnecessary hectoring and prodding (such as, “Did you contact your advisor to see what she thinks about the upcoming semester?” or “Isn’t it time to begin looking for a part-time job in case your firm doesn’t hire you back?”)

3. Try to maintain a mildly positive (but not delusional) outlook when it comes to the future. Comments like, “We don’t know exactly when, but it’s very likely that living more independently than you do right now is going to happen at some point,” may help prevent your young adult from feeling overwhelmed by hopelessness and despair.

4. Remind your young adult of his/her strengths and resilience, the times when s/he has succeeded in the past when facing challenges or adversity. (“We have faith in you and, based on what you have already accomplished in your life, believe that you will get through this ordeal, and emerge as a better, stronger person.”)

5. Remain empathic, keeping in mind that while you may not believe it will make much long-term difference exactly when your young adult resumes school or work, it is most likely a source of considerable frustration for him/her right now.

All caring parents experience helplessness when watching a child of any age having to endure uncertainty. But when children are young adults, it is important to express that care in ways that promote their self-assuredness and self-awareness such that they become more skilled at navigating the uncharted—and for now unchartable—waters that temporarily surround them.