Family Connections: Weathering the Pandemic (for Parents, Older Teens and Young Adults)

It doesn’t matter whether a family of four lives in a large spacious home or Cape Cod one-floor living space. It’s too close for comfort is a common complaint for teens and young adults between the ages of 17-26 who are sharing these spaces with parents. This sudden shift in living arrangements comes just when older teens and young adults are becoming more independent; valuing the opportunity for emotional and social distancing from their parents (think driving, working at a job or starting a new career, college and for some, even graduate school). This new concept of social distancing has been flipped: living with your family of origin 24/7.

While this too close for comfort refrain may sound like a physical space issue requiring a simple adjustment, it also means needing more emotional space from well-meaning, doting parents. Ironically, while older teens and young adults seek independence and respect for the choices they make while living at home, they also crave emotional intimacy; e.g., parents who express their appreciation and celebrate their child’s talents and life choices, and who are interested in their lives without being intrusive.

As a psychologist in Princeton who works with young people and their parents, I can share a few of the common refrains heard from stay at home older teens and young adults:

I’m being treated like a child, as if I haven’t lived apart from my parents for the past five years – away at college and starting my first job in another state.

My parents yell at me to get up in the morning and are constantly asking what my plans are for the day.  It’s as if they don’t trust me to make my own decisions about how I want to use my time.

There’s no place to go in my house that’s private. I have to sit in my backyard – even when It’s freezing outside – just to have a private Zoom session with my therapist or talk with my friends.

These stresses are not necessarily inevitable. We know that parents who adjusted their parenting style to accommodate their older children’s needs for autonomy and individuation when they began high school have an easier time honoring the independent nature of young adults who are returning home now during the current crisis. Though parents who established healthy communication behaviors when their children first became teens are coping with these pressures with far greater success, it’s not too late for parents to demonstrate healthy behaviors including emotional warmth, being less controlling, and knowing how to actively listen. (More about this later!) Such behaviors create feelings of mutual acceptance, support and love that have long-lasting benefits for parents, older teens and young adults – especially when they find themselves in close quarters for an extended period of time.

It’s About Time

What better time than now to revive old family rituals and start new ones! One parent remarked to me that she, her husband and two teenage daughters have had more family game nights in the past month than they had in the past two years.  For families who used to eat dinner together regularly before life became too hectic and family schedules stopped allowing for meal time conversations, there is no better time than now to gather around the dinner table, slow things down for a moment, and share stories, laughter, fears and hopes for our post-pandemic futures. Some families are discovering the joy of preparing healthy meals together, or taking turns in the kitchen, both cooking and cleaning up afterwards.

Healthy new rituals might include starting a family book club; doing crossword puzzles together, or taking family walks or bike rides on community trails.  It really doesn’t matter what the ritual is. The key is for all family members (which can be especially challenging for some parents and adult children} to agree on something they would like to do together on a regular basis. The best activities are tension-free, fun, inclusive and something family members can look forward to during these Groundhog Day weeks and months.

The flip side of time spent together is having plenty of time each day for each family member’s separate endeavor – all within the same home – but in different spaces, with privacy and respect for individual goals, needs and choices.

Ways to Communicate that Make a Difference

During these stressful months of social distancing, we often find families with parents and older teens and young adults in a fight/flight dance that can feel hurtful and confusing – too much yelling or no connecting at all. Either way, a family may get stuck, and not know how to make a significant shift in the parent-adult child dance that is honest, caring and constant.

Most of us, and especially teens and young adults, yearn to talk with someone who can actively listen to them. This means not falling into the traps of judging the speaker; giving opinions or advice that is not requested; and validating the concerns and challenges that are being shared.

Active listening is an important skill, and it should be saved for those times when your older teen or young adult child wants to share with you what is on his/her mind. You can’t actively listen and multi-task. It requires complete concentration; not being defensive; having good eye contact; and showing gratitude that your child has come to you with an important issue.

So parents, get ready to listen in four critical ways:

  • Paraphrase or play back what you are hearing to make sure you understand what your child is saying.
  • Be supportive and caring – both verbally and non-verbally.
  • Stay curious, and ask thoughtful, open-ended questions to get more details.
  • Under no circumstances should you become defensive or argumentative. Active listening requires empathy – walking in the shoes of the other and understanding how he/she feels and thinks. Whether you agree with what he/she is saying is not relevant.

Seeking Help When Needed

Some families may decide to seek outside counseling to help them stop the cycle of bickering and misunderstood feelings. It’s important to acknowledge that this unhealthy dynamic in families can be exacerbated during a period of grief, fear and loneliness that a seemingly endless pandemic perpetuates.

Princeton-area therapists are well-trained to support teens, young adults, parents and entire families who are feeling stuck. Thanks to Zoom and other telecommunication platforms, therapy can provide a safe place (without leaving your home) to step back from angry and hurt feelings and address conflicts that arise.

Working with a licensed psychologist or clinical social worker creates an opening for members of a family to learn healthy communication practices and examine ways to change their behaviors. Seeking outside guidance can make all the difference in helping families shift from surviving during a pandemic to thriving in a multiage family. Click on these links for a place in your community – Princeton, Montgomery, Pennington, Hopewell, Lawrenceville and West Windsor – to call for counseling services.

  1. Alexander Road Associates
  2. Cedar Glen Professional Association
  3. Comprehensive Mental Health Services
  4. Corner House
  5. Princeton Center for DBT and Counseling
  6. Princeton Family Institute
  7. Princeton Play Therapy and Counseling Center
  8. Princeton Psychological Partners, LLC
  9. Trinity Counseling Service
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