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Homebound College Students

How to support college kids when they return home.

Photo by Andrew Neel from Pexels
Source: Photo by Andrew Neel from Pexels

By now you all know the cliches about how unprecedented this time is. But for real—universities have been around since 895 CE (University of al-Qarawiyyin) and there has never been a worldwide disruption in education like we’ve seen this year. Even the impacts of WWII were moderate compared to what’s happening in higher education in 2020. With that said, let's consider how to parent, support, and move through the next few months with all of these college kids unexpectedly returning home.

Set Some Expectations

After the car is unloaded and the nasty laundry is in the washing machine, let’s sit down and talk for a bit. Topic? So now that the kiddos are home, let’s set some ground rules. Never had them in high school? Great! Time for a fresh start.

Since these are adults and not little kiddos running underfoot, I encourage parents to have a conversation about expectations rather than a list of demands that gets dropped on day one. Good topics to cover are how to be respectful of others are working from home, how to help out around the house, and expectations around how time will be used.

I want to expand upon this latter item. Time is a weird thing right now. We’ve got more of it since

Photos by Andrey Grushnikov from Pexels
Source: Photos by Andrey Grushnikov from Pexels

many of us are not stuck in cars going to work or walking to classes. And, not unlike things we have in abundance, we may take it for granted, especially those homebound college kids so let's talk about how to use that time while at home. My general guidance to parents is to ‘promote’ the concept of FTE or full-time equivalent use of weekdays. Here’s what I mean...Find one or more ways to fill waking hours during the week that meet the following standards: They are healthy. They are productive. They are helpful to yourself and/or others.

I don’t think homebound college students should be working 40 hours per week and taking awful, asynchronous zoom classes and volunteering at the food pantry. But, playing WOW (look it up old-timer), hanging out on twitch (again, look it up), or getting sucked down the Instagram rabbit hole are not healthy media diets for those with nothing else happening.

Role Model What You Want to See

Yeah, these are young adults that are home now and they should be at school, but we’ve got an opportunity right now. I encourage all the parents with whom I work to role model the behaviors they most want to see in their college kids. Even though they’re bigger and older and stinkier doesn’t mean they’re finished growing and developing. Humans aren’t finished at age 18...we keep uploading info. Look at you! You’re reading this and updating your parenting to version 2.0.

Anyway, now that they’re home, YOU are providing a bunch of info at a time they may be more receptive to hear it. This has nothing to do with hypocrisy (lame concept anyway). It’s about effectiveness. It’s more effective if these kiddos see you working out in the morning, eating some healthy food, and moderately drinking once in a while. Telling them to do this stuff just doesn’t work.

COVID Caution Quotient

Though this could have gone under Set Some Expectations above, I think talking about COVID precautions is important enough and unique enough to have its own space.

One surprising conflict I’ve seen emerge as students have returned home since March are the conversations (and arguments) around risk tolerance. And more surprisingly, it’s the students who are expressing concern and anger at parents who are not taking more conservative COVID precautions. Who would have thought that college students would be wagging their fingers at parents for not acting responsibly?

Therefore, having a specific conversation about what I refer to as your family’s COVID Caution Quotient should happen sooner rather than later. Let’s talk about when to wear a mask, what parties are ok to go to, and who can come over to the house. Is it ok to go out with hometown friends all of whom are back from school? What if they have all been really safe and isolating? What if everyone gets tested first? Is that good enough?

We recently had a death in our family and it meant we had to have many conversations with ourselves and extended family about the risks of traveling to the out-of-state funeral. I’m still sad not everyone could say good-bye the way we wanted to but that’s the impact and cost of a pandemic that doesn’t care about religion, class, or race.

Photos by Kulik Stepan from Pexels
Source: Photos by Kulik Stepan from Pexels

Routine + Flexibility

A good life for college students (maybe all of us?) is made up of three parts routine and equal parts fun and flexibility. This ratio provides a healthy balance of predictability and adaptability. Like I said earlier, parents need to role model this, and your kids will follow the lead (probably not right away).

Talk about organization and planning and long-term goals and you and your homebound college kiddos can imagine a time after COVID. Look, we’re not going back to normal. We’re moving towards a world forged in this modern pandemic and we need to anchor ourselves to a greater future. Routine and flexibility are the mindsets to get us through.

Talk About the (Unknown) Future

Most of us talk about the future in linear ways as if our future selves and what we want are down a straight road. Well, I’ve got news for you folks, the last year has proven that life, EVERY life, is non-linear. The world derails our best plans. Dozens of my clients had jobs, internships, and study-abroad plans that all just disappeared. Other clients had incredible, unexpected opportunities unfold. Parents can take this time with kids at home to talk about how what they want may not happen in the way they planned. Time for some flexibility and adaptability. Now is the time to encourage choices that lead to more choices in the future. Rather than “I’m going to be a doctor!” maybe consider “I’m going to take more classes which could be used for med school or some other graduate work.

See Something, Say Something

Students are hurting, scared, confused, angry, sad, anxious, and depressed with fewer friends to hang out with and fewer opportunities for meeting new people. If your parent spidey-sense is tingling that something is wrong, say something or ask. You might be wrong. You might be overreacting. You might be projecting (maybe you are more depressed, angry, scared, anxious than you realize?). Either way, say something. I promise it will not make the carriage turn back into a pumpkin. Asking about depression doesn’t make someone depressed.

Photos by Lisa Fotios from Pexels
Source: Photos by Lisa Fotios from Pexels

While it may not be received in the nicest way (“Ughh! I’m FINE!!! I’m just tired”) it doesn’t mean you should say something or ask. Sometimes the simplest, most effective thing to say is to observe and validate (“You look sad”). You’re not a therapist but you are a loving, observant, concerned parent. Say something.

Final Thoughts

If you’re not sure how to handle a situation, now may be the time to consult a professional. Though most therapists are working remotely now, we are proving to be an essential part of our countries supportive infrastructure. Search for them here on Psychology Today or check out my detailed guide on how to find a good therapist here. The simple version of finding a therapist right now is to just email them and share what you’re struggling with. The good ones will get back to you and, if they can help, they’ll get you on their calendar or give you a free consultation. Don’t assume that the challenges you and your homebound college student are facing can be easily fixed and will eventually just fade away. This is going to take a village.

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