- Many of the empty-nest parents that are coming to see me in my practice are struggling with deep depression and anxiety due to their children’s departure to college in a way I have not seen in past years. Tweet This
- COVID has shaken up the social norms or modern standards of how the separation process during adolescence and young adulthood should go. Tweet This
- Since the pandemic, the families I treat are experiencing an increase in contact with their young adult children, who not only call daily, but often multiple times per day for emotional refueling. Tweet This
The pandemic has changed the way we relate to one another and our children. It forced parents and children together in ways that are both helpful and potentially harmful. For young children and even adolescents, studies before the pandemic showed that parents spent 90 minutes per day with their children, on average—not enough to create strong and secure attachment. COVID definitely brought children and parents back together in a positive manner, from sharing more meals, to more parent-child play time between Zoom calls, to adolescents getting to watch movies or go for long walks with their parents.
But for every silver lining, there is also a dark cloud. The dark cloud in this case is the difficulty some parents and young people are facing in separating as they go back to school, work, or return to or begin college. This has contributed to an already challenging mental health crises for teens and young adults, who did not get to practice the separation and distancing between themselves and their parents while at home, something that is critical for a healthy transition to living on one’s own. In particular, the pandemic exacerbated anxiety and depression in college students, an age group that already had high rates of mental health issues. College campus mental health services are overwhelmed with waitlists, and it is not uncommon for struggling students to have to wait weeks before getting to speak to a therapist.
In my practice, it has long been common for young people who left for college to experience an initial transition period of homesickness, where they call home every day. But this usually wanes after a week or two. Since the pandemic, the families I treat are experiencing an increase in contact with their young adult children, who not only call daily, but often multiple times per day for emotional refueling. This has also intensified and seems to be prolonged in nature. The weaning process is more painful for kids as well as for their parents.
In addition, parents who are now empty nesters are struggling more than usual with letting go of their children. It is normal and natural for parents to also practice separating from their children while still living together—this closeness/distance dance results in their ability to let go. Many of the empty-nest parents that are coming to see me in my practice are struggling with deep depression and anxiety due to their children’s departure to college in a way I have not seen in past years. They miss the sweet reuniting and progressing closeness with their children that COVID brought, which has made the rapid and abrupt departure even more challenging. In an AARP article published last year, University of Toledo Medical Center psychiatrist Victoria Kelly noted that empty-nest syndrome is largely about grief. These feelings of grief over children leaving home, compounded with feelings of grief over the experiences we missed out on during COVID, make the sense of loss even greater.
On a positive note, the transition to more togetherness during COVID for parents likely helped to repair many years of being distracted and too busy to spend great amounts of quantity and quality time with children. For many, it reignited a flame of attachment they seldom felt before this due to premature or precocious separation from their kids at a young age, which makes it harder to give up what they have discovered in a closer relationship with their children.
As a result of this phenomenon of regression to earlier attachment and closeness, I am seeing many young adults move back home, either transferring to schools closer to home or dropping out to take gap years so they can remain close to parents or other loved ones. According to a national survey of undergraduates in the 2020-2021 school year, 1 in 4 students who decided to transfer colleges did so to be closer to home.
The results of this social experiment are yet to be fully known; however, we do know that COVID has shaken up the social norms or modern standards of how the separation process during adolescence and young adulthood should go. It may produce a generation of more vulnerable young adults, or it may in fact reunite the nuclear and extended family as it was originally meant to be—multi-generational living in communities, where moving far away from family is no longer desirable. While in the short run the pandemic may have made the separation process harder and empty-nest syndrome more painful, it may also have course corrected a modern social system where stoic independence is valued over family closeness and proximity.
Erica Komisar, LCSW is a psychoanalyst, parent guidance expert and author of Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters and Chicken Little The Sky Isn’t Falling: Raising Resilient Adolescents in the New Age of Anxiety.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.