Blog Articles and Resources
by Deborah J. Cohan, Ph.D.
COLLEGE, ESSENTIALLY, is all about individuating from one’s family of origin and forging a new path. How is that going now that most students are trying to do college far away from campus? For many, not very well.
“When you think of college you don’t think of sitting at home with your family all day,” my student Eliza* tells me. “There is no freedom. I have all the same rules and restrictions I had before. I went from being independent right back to high school.”
It’s not that life at home is necessarily bad, although it certainly can be for students with a difficult relationship with their parents. It’s that this is not how it was supposed to be. Students had made the transition to adulthood and put their childhood behind them. Now it’s in their face, along with the awkward reality that their parents may have begun to move on from those days as well. “I feel as if I don’t belong,” Eliza says. “The bedroom that was once mine is now decorated as a beachy guest room. It makes me sad when I reminisce about the days when I was in high school and had pink walls and glitter lamps and postcards and Polaroids decorating the whole room.”
College is supposed to be about educating a new citizenry and socializing for, and toward, hope. A sixty-something friend and fellow academic, Kathryn Feltey of the University of Akron, recently posted a photo of her 18-year-old self online with the caption, “I am leaving my childhood behind as I search for my life and who I will be.”
This is a generation of students now blocked from taking those steps. The various crises in which they have come of age have never made it easy. Toddlers in 2001, they have been largely over parented in a culture of fear in which worries have ranged from terrorism to school shootings. Conversations about safety and protection dominated their childhood. They emerged from it all more tethered, less comfortable with solitude, and by all accounts lonelier. After growing up hyper scheduled, they demonstrate less ease with creative risk-taking and unstructured assignments.
They want to live out Feltey’s ethos but also feel rigidly confined. The generation that might have the most to gain from firmly breaking away from their families of origin have been driven right back, where they are likely experiencing a resurgence of surveillance.
College students returning home may have expected that their parents would acknowledge a changed dynamic and respect their privacy, but for many, the reality has been disappointing. Eliza tells me that her mother has been scrutinizing her every move, from whom she texts to what she eats to what she watches on Netflix.
Some parents who grew used to monitoring their children’s academics seem to forget that their kids have been doing it on their own for quite a while; others, relieved to be unburdened of responsibility for their children’s grades, have become distractions. “My parents do not fully understand the quiet I need to write a paper or take a quiz,” Tess* says. “I was working on a project, and my mom walked in the room in the middle of an interview. I even explained to her what I was doing and asked her not to bother me, but she still proceeded with the conversation.”
If the dynamics of sheltering in place are awkward, though, students have to bear some of the blame. Specifically, a childhood spent allowing their parents to do everything for them is coming back to haunt some. “When I come home for school breaks, I’m used to not doing anything productive and letting my mother do everything for me,” Eliza admits, “from making my bed to making my coffee and doing my laundry.” Now, her mother questions why she drinks so much coffee and sleeps so much.
Even those who may appreciate the comforts of home overwhelmingly strive to recover the freedom they’ve worked hard to achieve. “I love being with my family, but I can’t do this every day. I feel trapped and irritable,” Faith* says. “I actually miss the uncertainties of my college life. I had something to look forward to every day.”
“It feels like I’ve reverted back to high school,” says Sydney Ocampo, 20. In December, she came home to West Suffield, Connecticut, from New York University Shanghai to spend holiday break with her parents, George and Karey. When conditions ruled out a return to China, she was able to shift to NYU’s Manhattan campus. After six weeks, she returned home to finish the semester remotely. “I'm technically independent here, but I can’t go anywhere. My mom says that when I was at college I talked to her more than I do now. I was calling her once a day or every other day, mostly just to complain. Now there’s obviously a lot to complain about, but there’s not much to update her about. Without the structure of class, I’m really just not doing much.”
Some family situations pose sterner challenges: Megan*, for example, discloses that between her hypercritical mother, who slams her appearance and tells her she needs to lose weight, and the presence of her alcoholic stepfather, she feels trapped, insecure, and depressed at home.
Other students can’t even go home. Having grown up in an abusive family where he sometimes fantasized about death as a route to happiness, David* successfully petitioned to remain in his dorm, but he knows that’s only a temporary fix. “I have been thrust into an unknown world before I was prepared for it,” he says. “I have no money, no job, and my housing situation is not sustainable.”
Despite a loving but now long-distance relationship with Faith, David says, “Daily life is unrecognizable. I have lost hope, drive, and motivation. I go to bed in the early hours of the morning, sleep until noon, wake up, eat, and climb back into bed, only to emerge a few hours later to eat again. I feel my mental health is deteriorating.”
I identify with his fears; had I been forced to return home because of a pandemic while I was a student, I would have been terrified of witnessing my parents’ blowout fights; the stress of their marriage became even more apparent to me once I left for school. Going to college, for me and so many others, has been a ticket to a new life, a new place, and a new self.
Campus becomes not just a new home, but an oasis where we can grow intellectually, emotionally, politically, sexually, and creatively. The forced return to families of origin, Eliza says, “stifles the newly discovered parts of us. Those of us who have been kicked off campus and have smothering parents are forced to hide what we have discovered with higher education.” For David, “College gave me a sense of self-expression, freedom, and independence from the constant fear that had shackled me my entire life.”
How parents handle this sensitive moment—ideally by allowing their children to do the serious work of becoming an adult—will have a tremendous effect on how a generation is able to move forward whenever campus life resumes. College is a dwelling of, for, and about hope. Conversations with my students tell me that overall, the kids are all right. But they’ll be much better off when they can truly fly back toward that structure of hope.
I write articles based on my experience as a therapist or a training or conference attendee. Many of these articles are written by others who are experts in their field and I share their information as resources for others.