What Parents Need to Know About Trauma, College, and COVID

A trauma-informed parenting approach can help students cope with COVID.

Posted Sep 20, 2020

“I think I need to increase my sertraline dose; my anxiety and depression are getting worse. I’m so anxious about getting COVID that I’m afraid to go outside. I’m also worried about my father getting COVID and dying. I find myself losing motivation to do online classes; without seeing my friends, I feel like there is nothing to look forward to.”

As a college psychiatrist, I have witnessed college students struggling with the health, financial, and social ramifications of COVID-19. Some have had COVID; most have recovered but a few were very sick. They worry about family members dying of COVID. With fewer jobs available, they are having trouble paying rent and tuition. Most of all, they feel lonely and are missing spending time with friends or celebrating important events, like college graduation. They have a sense of loss, actual loss of a loved one or loss of financial and social opportunities. 

They are experiencing what I would call collective trauma. Trauma results from an event or series of events that is experienced as emotionally or physically harmful or life-threatening, resulting in an increased risk of mental health disorders including depression, anxiety, PTSD, and substance use disorders. The COVID pandemic is an ongoing traumatic event, threatening the well-being of college students and their families. The college-aged population has experienced some of the greatest mental health impacts from COVID. Since the pandemic, the rate of college students screening positive for depression has increased to 41 percent from 36 percent, and one of four 18 to 24 year-olds seriously considered suicide

What can parents do to help their children be resilient in the face of COVID? They can take a trauma-informed parenting approach. Trauma-informed parenting has been written about regarding younger children, but similar principles can be applied to the college population. In fact, many parents have college students living with them taking online classes and are witnessing the impact of the pandemic first-hand. Parents can be first responders when students are struggling. Here are steps in trauma-informed parenting for the college population: 

1. Acknowledge trauma’s impact on your college student’s lives. If they seem unmotivated to do their schoolwork, don’t ask them, “What is wrong with you?” Ask them, “What is happening now in your life that is making it hard to work?” Specifically, ask them how COVID is affecting their life right now. They may feel disengaged from online classes or disconnected from their friends. Validate the struggles they are experiencing, and that they are not alone. Everyone is struggling with the consequences of this pandemic. 

2. Empower them to improve what they can. Help them understand that even though they cannot control how long COVID will be around, they can take action to mitigate COVID’s impact on their lives. While they may not feel connected to their online classes, they can study with a friend online. They can still attend a professor’s office hours virtually. If they are lonely, they can consider what might help them safely socialize and commit to a plan, like speaking with a certain friend every week by video or joining clubs where they can meet with students virtually or outdoors. 

3. Remind them of their strengths and the positive actions they are taking. If they are with friends and wearing a mask, tell them how glad you are that they are being careful with their health and safety. Acknowledge their efforts to exercise or follow a regular sleep schedule. When they encourage you to take precautions to avoid COVID, realize how much they love you and thank them for their concern. 

4. Encourage holistic treatment if they develop clinical depression (down mood much of the time, poor concentration, sleeping too much or too little) and/or anxiety (feeling worried all the time, having difficulty falling asleep, having panic attacks). Start by suggesting lifestyle changes that can improve their mood like exercise, yoga, meditation, and eating a Mediterranean diet. At the same time, direct them to their counseling center for an evaluation and treatment that could include individual or group therapy. If symptoms are more severe, they might consider psychiatric medication. Most mental health services at universities are offered online, so they should have access to services whether they are living at school or at home. However, if they have moved away from the state in which their university is located, they may need to find local care. Their counseling center will let them know what their policy is regarding out of state care.

A final thought: Parents should acknowledge their own trauma from COVID, feel empowered to take action to help themselves, make note of their resilience and what they are handling well, and pursue wellness activities and mental health care if they experience depression or anxiety. Keep in mind a saying from Buddha: “Our sorrows and wounds are healed only when we touch them with compassion.” Approaching our own and our children’s trauma with compassion is the first step on the road to healing. 

©2020 Marcia Morris, all rights reserved.
Details have been altered to protect patient privacy.