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Not-So-Empty Nest Syndrome: How to Parent College-Aged Kids During a Pandemic
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Not-So-Empty Nest Syndrome: How to Parent College-Aged Kids During a Pandemic

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“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow…” 

~Kahlil Gibran~

As coronavirus cases surge across the country, many colleges are opting to offer only virtual classes this semester. Along with a lack of in-person learning, other hallmark college experiences are indefinitely on hold. From dorm life to Greek life to sporting events, campus life will be a far cry from the “Animal House” experience every eager freshman envisions.

But students aren’t the only ones grappling with a disappointing ‘new normal.’ For parents who had been envisioning an empty nest come fall, the pandemic is instead forcing Mom and Dad to underdo a new education: Learning how to parent an almost-adult who balks at the suggestion of curfew and chores.    

I’ve talked to many parents who are struggling with having their college-aged child at home right now. Even though it’s always bittersweet to drop your child off at college for the first time, it’s also a rite of passage that we have come to expect and even eagerly anticipate at times. Having an empty nest offers some freedom for parents who have spent the last 18 years caring for their child’s physical and emotional needs.

But now our nests are fuller than ever before, as most kids will be learning at home for the foreseeable future. This constant family togetherness can put major stress on parents’ well-being, especially when it comes to ever-increasing conflict with older kids who are demanding more freedom.

It’s challenging to manage a child’s education via virtual learning, but trying to manage a college-aged kid who wants to stay out all night and explore their sexuality and experiment with their identity can be really frustrating and scary for parents.

Here are a few ways to make Fall 2020 more peaceful and productive for you and your young adults:

Compromise. Be very intentional about picking your battles right now. If your college kid is leaving his room messy, and it’s driving you nuts, choose to shut his bedroom door, and simply walk away. It’s going to feel hard and uncomfortable at first. I encourage you to do some deep-breathing, journaling, or meditating, or maybe going for a walk around the block. Focus on the importance of releasing, letting go, and allowing your child some room to make adult decisions and yes, adult mistakes.

Remind yourself that if he was at the dorm right now, as he should have been pre-pandemic, his room would probably be a bit of a pigsty. Let him experience the natural consequences of being messy—when he loses something important or accidentally steps on his iPad because there is laundry all over his floor, that can be his problem to solve.

Think of yourself as an RA. It’s so tempting to helicopter over our kids and micromanage their schooling, especially if you know from experience that your child is not always on top of their assignments. But in college, your child is required to be invested and engaged with their material, including staying on top of their assignments and class times.

Resist the urge to come bursting in their room at 9 a.m. to remind them of their virtual lecture. Let them experience what happens when their professor docks their grade or when they miss out on important information about an upcoming paper. Picture yourself as an R.A.-- that is, a caring, compassionate presence who can offer life advice and tips as requested, but who otherwise allows their residents to grow and make their own mistakes.

Create a family COVID-19 policy. Pre-pandemic, if your young adult had a really active social life and always had friends over to the house, your main fear would be that the noise may keep you up or that they would eat all your snacks. But, now, with the coronavirus, defying social distancing guidelines could have fatal consequences for your family, especially vulnerable loved ones. So, sit down with your kids, and work out a family COVID-19 plan that clearly lays out your expectations and what rules you ALL agree to follow in order to help keep everyone safe.

This might mean that your older child agrees not to go to bars or to socialize in large groups, or that they will only go on Zoom dates, or that they will wear masks when with friends. or only socialize outdoors. But be sure you're not just asking them to make sacrifices: Maybe you have to go into work, but you can do yoga at home instead of a studio. Maybe you can take a virtual cooking class instead of getting takeout so often.

Work together as a family to brainstorm ways you can keep as socially-distant as possible. Remind your child(ren) that the more we follow these guidelines now, the safer everyone will be, AND the sooner the pandemic will end and we can embrace our new normal.

Allow your child privacy and autonomy. If coronavirus never happened, your college-aged child would probably be attending frat parties, meeting new people on the quad, and exploring sex and dating with complete privacy and autonomy. But, now, they’re stuck in their childhood bedroom with Mom and Dad down the hall.

As difficult as it may be for parents, now is the time to release your control over your child’s romantic decisions. You can encourage safer sex and talk about the importance of consent, condom use, and honoring your body, but now is the time to start trusting that your child can make their own decisions about sex and dating.

Of course, with a pandemic happening, dating and casual sex come with bigger risks than ever. But don't use that as an excuse to dictate your child's private sexual decisions. You should make space for their right to self-discovery without shaming them or trying to control them.

So, while you can agree as a family that no strangers are allowed in the house and that social distancing guidelines need to be followed, you can also agree that your college kid no longer has a curfew and that they are in charge of their bodies and sexual decisions...whether that looks like giving them lots of space and privacy for their Zoom dates or even allowing them (or even encouraging them) to purchase a sex toy for self-pleasure during this unprecedented time.

Embrace your own exploration. Watching our children leave for college can be devastating, but also very liberating. It gives you a chance to focus on self-care and explore all of those parts of yourself that you have been neglecting for many years. Even with the quarantine happening, you can still find ways to enjoy this self-inquiry.

Yes, your child is still in the home, but they are capable and deserving of independence. Your physical space may still be full, but your emotional space can feel lighter and more liberated. But first, you have to fully step into the realization that your child is now reaching adulthood and you have more time and freedom than ever before.

Let yourself embrace that idea and really hold it in your mind. This is more than important than ever, as right now, you won’t have the physical absence of your child to remind you that you have the right and ability to create more time and space for yourself. 

Now is the time to start thinking about how you want your life to look when your child(ren) are out of the house. How do you want your relationship with your partner to grow? How do you want to restructure your free time? Create an intentional vision board for the experiences you wish to cultivate in the future.

Even if you can’t enjoy every single activity right now (traveling the world is probably not possible currently), you can look for ways to make those desires come true in your daily life.

For example, if traveling is on your bucket list, you are likely seeking growth, new challenges, and a change from the usual. Look for ways that you can create this excitement and spontaneity in your day-to-day life, even if you’re in your hometown.

Most of all, be mindful about releasing your child from your emotional to-do list, making a conscious choice to lighten your emotional load while simultaneously signaling to your child that you have faith in their ability to make good choices and learn from their own mistakes.

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