Ask a Therapist: I’m Supposed to Be Away at College but COVID Has Me Stuck at Home — How Do I Tell My Parents I Need Space?

by Roy Fisher, MA LMFT

Question: I’m an 18-year-old recent high-school grad. I was really looking forward to heading off to college this fall but because of the pandemic, my school is choosing to only offer online classes. My relationship with my parents is good, I was just looking forward to having the opportunity to be more independent and figure out who I am. I’m concerned that by staying home, we’ll all fall into the same patterns. I’m worried how my parents might react to this if I tell them how I’m feeling. Any ideas on how to have the conversation would be really appreciated.

Dear Reader,

I’ve spent the majority of my career working with youth and families. The transition from high school to college is a significant time in a family’s life. The graduating senior approaches the upcoming fall with a sense of excitement for what the future might hold. There are opportunities to meet new friends and try things they might not have been able to do before. At the same time, parents are balancing the worry of their child “going away” with a mixture of excitement and pride that their baby is growing up. 

I can remember when I left for Berkeley. I remember the fear, excitement, and curiosity I felt wondering what might be waiting for me when I arrived on campus. I called my mom when I landed in Oakland to let her know I was safe. What was my mom doing? She was cleaning out my room … not to provide more space for my brothers — she was claiming the closet. Clearly, my mom went screaming past concern and straight to excitement … for closet space! 

But I digress … 

This emerging adulthood stage, between adolescence and young adulthood, lasts roughly from high-school graduation through college graduation and a little beyond. This time is marked by:

  • Age of Identity Exploration: Young people are deciding who they are and what they want out of work, school, and love.
  • Age of Instability: The post-high-school years are marked by repeated residence changes, as young people either go to college or live with friends or a romantic partner. 
  • Age of Self-Focus: Freed from the parent- and society-directed routine of school, young people try to decide what they want to do, where they want to go, and who they want to be with.
  • Age of Feeling “In Between”: Many emerging adults say they are taking responsibility for themselves, but still do not feel completely “like an adult.”
  • Age of Possibilities: Optimism reigns. Most emerging adults believe they have good chances of living “better than their parents did.”

This period can represent the beginning of the transition from child to adult. The young adult can make more independent decisions and begin to define their identity. This time can also be freeing for parents. You didn’t mention any siblings, so if you are an only child your parents could have been looking forward to redefining their lives free from the day-to-day responsibilities of parenting. Parents who are proactive can take advantage of this by focusing on themselves, perhaps reconnecting as lovers. My mother clearly had eyes on my closet.

The pandemic, and its aftermath, is giving us opportunities to reimagine our relationships. To create new expectations and parameters for how we interact with each other. My hunch is that you’d like to experience some semblance of the freedom you’d have at college and are worried that by staying home your parents will continue to treat you like they did while you were in high school. 

It might be useful to have a family meeting. You could express your disappointment and give them space to share whatever they’re feeling. Make sure you acknowledge the patterns you hope to disrupt and why. By calling the meeting and being prepared, you’ll go a long way towards showing your parents how capable you are. A side effect of coming to them with your concerns is that you allow space for them to share their thoughts and feelings. Together you can co-create an environment tailored specifically to address the concerns of everyone involved.

I hope you have found this helpful.

Counselors Roy Fisher and Liz Covey answer readers’ questions for South Seattle Emerald’s “Ask a Therapist.” Have a question about a relationship? Wondering about the struggles of being a parent? Others likely have the same questions and Covey and Fisher bring years of professional experience to provide their insights.

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Featured Image: “Walking The Ledge Part IV” by StarMama is licensed under CC BY 2.0. View a copy of this license here.