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The Real FOMO: "Fear of Moving Out"

Even the most confident young adults become skittish on the brink of departure.

FOMO is the contemporary acronym for "fear of missing out," the fretful feelings associated with the sense that interesting and exciting possibilities are occurring elsewhere.

From my personal perspective as a family psychologist, however, FOMO is better understood as an acronym for "fear of moving out," the fretful feelings associated with the departure from home and the need to begin journeying towards self-sufficiency.

While young adults vary significantly when it comes to the nature and texture of this fearfulness, nobody is free of it. Even those who appear supremely confident about leaving home—and/or are desperate to do so—are usually battling to vanquish some level of anxiety. Like ducks on a lake, they may look like they are calmly, deliberately coasting forward unimpeded, but under the surface, there is a frantic paddling of feet.

Over the years, I have seen that most young adults manage their FOMO in one of the following three ways:

  • Pretending that they have already left
  • Planning a departure that is certain to fail
  • Ensuring that a departure will never take place

Let’s take a brief look at each of these.

Pretending that they have already left

This tactic often shows up in the form of comments such as, “I don’t have to follow a curfew, I’m going to be leaving for college in a few months anyway and you won’t be asking me when I’m returning to my dorm,” or “I shouldn’t have to clean my room anymore, that’s my space and soon I’ll be in my own apartment and won’t have to listen to you bug me.”

The snarky or defiant attitude often masks the concern that lies behind the young adult’s (sometimes only subconscious) awareness of what his life will be like without a parent who will be there to insist that he gets home on time or stays on top of his responsibilities—in other words, a parent who will be there to make sure that he doesn’t feel completely alone and neglected.

Planning a departure that is likely to fail

This strategy preserves the appearance of an upcoming leave-taking, in that the young adult will indeed be taking leave. However, the plan is usually so shoddy or ramshackle that it is destined to collapse shortly after it is set into motion, precipitating the homecoming that, in some ways, may be a source of comfort and reassurance.

Making plans to move out without having engaged in sufficient emotional or fiscal preparedness is one of the surest ways to sabotage a departure. So is coming up with a scenario that is completely unrealistic or unachievable. The reality is that "running away from home"—at any age—is generally guaranteed not to end well. It is when young adults sturdily, steadily "walk away from home" that the odds of self-reliance are increased.

Ensuring that a departure will never take place

This is the least subtle expression of FOMO, the active or passive refusal to lay the groundwork for a path that will carry the young adult from dependence to independence. It can be seen in a range of activities or inertias, from drug or alcohol use that interferes with the capacity to achieve academically or professionally to under-achieving or under-performing to such an extent that significant adult rites of passage (high school graduation, obtaining a driver’s license, acquiring a job) are never experienced.

Whichever of these categories your young adult appears to be inhabiting, your approach should essentially be the same—helping her to find a way to address, articulate and normalize the fear. Going back to FDR’s adage, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself,” it is advisable to remember that the more we are aware of what we are afraid of, the less afraid we are likely to be, and the less likely our fear will curtail our growth.

Of course, most young adults will be extremely reluctant to acknowledge the experience of FOMO. In fact, what I usually see is that the higher the level of anxiety an individual is encountering, the less likely she is to admit to that anxiety. When we are on reasonably good terms with our feelings of uncertainty and inadequacy, we are better able to acknowledge them, which means that they are less likely to ambush us and we are more likely to transcend them.

Here are some questions and comments aligned with the categories:

Category One: Pretending That She Has Already Left

  • Have you thought about what it will be like for you when you don’t have your parents wondering where you are or what you're up to?
  • Is there any part of you that will miss having to be accountable to someone in the way that we ask you to be accountable to us?

Category Two: Planning a Departure That Is Likely to Fail

  • Your plan sounds interesting to me, and I do hope that it works out for you, but there are ways in which it seems almost destined to fail—is there any part of you that hopes that your plan doesn’t succeed?
  • Are you afraid that if you don’t proceed with this plan the way it stands now, that you will lose a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that will never appear again?

Category Three: Ensuring That a Departure Will Never Take Place

  • You talk about wanting to leave home yet you seem to work hard to make sure that you never will—do you know what might be holding you back?
  • Are you concerned that when you do leave home, you will never be allowed to return again?

As is usually the case when offering queries and observations of this sort to young adults (or to children of any age), it is not essential that you get a response. Often, all it takes is the act of triggering individuals’ curiosity regarding what they are doing (or not doing), and the basis for their action (or inaction), for them to begin to engage in a deeper self-examination when it comes to their goals and motives. The most important conversations during the emptying of the nest don’t take place between young adults and their parents, but between young adults and themselves.

Either way, the prospect of crossing life’s significant thresholds is always a daunting one—even when the threshold that is approached is one that we are mostly certain that we want to cross. Acknowledging the challenge, and the complicated feelings associated with it, always equips us to more successfully and self-assuredly travel along life’s most important and rewarding passageways.

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