Coronavirus Killed the Semester, Now What?
Part 2: How students can survive with social isolation and virtual learning.
Posted Mar 23, 2020
People bought items in this order—sanitizer, toilet paper, alcohol.
If we’re not careful, our regular use of alcohol or weed or pills can become a big replacement behavior as boredom, isolation, and hopelessness slowly slither their way into our lives.
It feels like a vacation right now but as days turn into weeks, our vacation-patterns will become our lifestyle. Having a drink on a beach in the middle of the day is great. Woo-hoo.
Having a drink in my home office in the middle of the day, every day, is terrible. It's depressing. An unhealthy, unchecked lifestyle is short-term stimulation at the cost of long-term satisfaction. Smoking weed a few times at night might be fun for college students while at school but once home for weeks it can become habitual—disrupting sleep, eating, and increasing anxiety.
Recommendation: Kids are going to party. I get it. But there’s no reason parents can’t set some reasonable boundaries around when and how often. Let me be more specific—kids will want to smoke weed (yes, even your little angel) and drink and vape (stupid, really really stupid). This is a reality. You can try to tell them to stop or not use anything but that will only drive them to hide it, which will get pretty difficult after a few weeks at home. Instead, talk about "reasonable" use. What a great time to act like one of those adults responsible for things like houses, kids, and adulty-type stuff. They may not have those yet but it’s a perfect time to start practicing. It may not feel fair to your little angel that they're stuck at home and can’t go back to school but since this is the reality for at least the rest of the semester, it’s your home and your rules even if they're over 18.
Vacation is no time to obsess over eating healthy. It’s time to be impulsive and eat the whole damn bag of chips. You deserve it! But I submit to you this is not vacation and practicing a healthy lifestyle as stated above is essential since we have no idea how long this new paradigm will last. Enough said on that.
Recommendation: Food is the first line of defense against depression. Sugar, fat, and salt will lead to more depression and fatigue. Get your college kid to help plan for meals. Encourage them to eat regular meals and not snack between them. Talk about being intentional with healthy food since it will be SOOOO easy to stock the pantry with chips and junk food... and then eat them all. Be a role model on how responsible adults work from home or adapt to changing conditions without visiting the fridge every 30 minutes.
Oh boy, this is a biggie. Most of my clients already were struggling (or fully embracing) disrupted, irregular, unsatisfying sleep routines. I can only imagine how bad their sleep is back at home. Sleep is one of several pillars of health. Sleep is the cheapest, easiest, and most effective way to improve our lives. Sleep is also something our culture has sneered at with stupid phrases like "I’ll sleep when I’m dead." A more accurate way to say it is, "You’ll die sooner if you don’t sleep."
It’s a cliche but a reality that college students are terrible sleepers. Whether it’s legit studying and school work or the more common partying and gaming until 4:00 a.m.—they are just terrible. Anxiety is another reason college students struggle with sleep. Racing thoughts, fear, and a noisy brain make it impossible to click-down at night. Lastly, compromised sleep absolutely destroys our immune system which we all need to be more aware of now than ever before.
Recommendation: Since we are practicing this whole-new ultra-independent isolation, developing our own schedules, practices, and habits are vital since the institutions we relied on to provide these are all in deep-cleaning mode for the next few months. As with other recommendations above, parents can be role models for healthy sleep habits like going to bed at a regular time every night... even if there is no work or responsibilities in the morning. It’s also appropriate (if not essential) that parents create an expectation that this time period is not vacation or camp or winter break. It’s life and since there is no instruction manual, we’re making our own which includes a reasonable sleep schedule.
It’s going to be super easy for college students and every adult to slide into an unhealthy lifestyle. One of the first routines we push to the side is taking care of our bodies. When our classes are moved online and restaurants are all closed, time takes on a different role in our lives. It becomes our most abundant asset and our heaviest burden. Fitness is essential. Just think of Will Smith in I Am Legend—he’s working out like a stud during the vampire (or were they zombies?) apocalypse. Why? There’s no one to impress and no one’s butt to kick. Simply put, his workout routine was therapeutic and a way to fill his day with positive, specific activities. His character knew that if he relaxed, he would descend into hopelessness and then get eaten/bit/whatever by those ugly things.
Recommendation: Get on a workout routine. Encourage your college kid to build a routine. If you’ve got a treadmill or weights—use them. Got a basketball net outside or at a park—use it. It’s not nearly the same as a pickup game with a bunch of friends but it’s better than playing sports on Xbox. Tennis is great since players are so far apart (though I guess you still need to touch the ball to serve).
Put a small plan together for Mondays through Fridays. A colleague of mine just texted me how excited she was that her yoga studio just started broadcasting classes to all their members. Nice. Like so many other topics I covered above, there are plenty of YouTube channels and classes to follow. Get it on the calendar so that it's more real. Your kids will thank you later for pushing them on this.
If I have not fully conveyed the point, we are in uncharted territory. The closest experience the world (yes, the whole freaking world!) has to this COVID-19 pandemic is the Spanish Flu from 1918. A thorough comparison can be found here, but suffice to say when researchers and immunologists say "No, seriously—this is really, really bad," I listen. The best thing parents can do to help their college-student children is not pretend like this isn’t happening or that it will all go away by May.
Recommendation: Encourage your college student to take things seriously but not to freak out. Working with a therapist for those that are already struggling with depression, anxiety, substance use, or other behavioral health issues is essential. A good therapist will help your kiddo develop healthy distress tolerance, learn new skills to deal with social isolation and the unknowns of college and career.
Also—please please please talk with them about financial responsibility. So many affluent clients I work with don't teach or act as role models for financial responsibility and act as though they invented a Money Tree that lives forever. Well, folks, that tree may be dying. Investments dropped to record lows several consecutive days in a row. Retirement accounts have been wiped-out. Time to practice some frugality.
In summary, the theme that I’ve hopefully injected into nearly every other paragraph is the need for planning, organization, adaptability, and resiliency. Moving towards an adaptability-mindset will insulate you and your kids from the threatening knowns and the anxiety-provoking unknowns. Developing and practicing resiliency will help those you love get through some very real challenges we face as a country. Schedules and planning will put some meat on that bone and give direction for each day and hopefully ward off the evil mojo of hopelessness.