The coronavirus pandemic has affected students in a multitude of ways and the negative impacts are particularly great for college students. In our work with this population, we have found that it can be hard for parents to strike a balance between supporting college students’ independence and encouraging their engagement in the college experience while also recommending they follow prevention guidelines. The situation that college students and their families now face calls for new discussions about safety and health.

Supporting on-campus safety

We know from media reports that college campuses have become hot spots of coronavirus transmission, which can be frightening to parents. For students whose universities decided to welcome them in-person this fall, parents may be finding themselves having a new “talk” with their child — this time focused on safety and prevention of COVID-19 transmission. However, it can be tricky for parents to navigate discussions with their young adult children, particularly if they are trying to influence their decisions and behavior. To facilitate these interactions, we’ve listed some tips below:

  • Do your homework/Get up-to-date info. In giving guidance to college students, parents should become informed about the safety protocols each university has communicated. These often include routine COVID testing, daily temperature checks and reporting, mandatory mask-wearing in public spaces, and rules against social gatherings. Knowing the latest information from the CDC around preventing the spread of COVID is also important. Having these facts on hand can help to emphasize the importance and validity of parental concerns and give potentially worried students action items for staying safe.
  • Empathize. It can be helpful to come to the conversation ready to listen to your student’s concerns and acknowledge that this is hard — it is not the college experience they envisioned or have experienced in past semesters. They are likely experiencing mixed emotions, like excitement about returning to school, frustration over limitations imposed by the virus, worry, etc. Make it clear you are available to talk, and that you can understand how difficult this time must be for them.
  • Keep the tone matter-of fact, neutral. This is easiest to achieve when parents examine their own anxieties around the pandemic and then initiate the conversation when everyone is calm. Parents might begin by describing their concerns and then allowing space for others to share their perspectives.
  • Engage in collaborative problem-solving. Your child is not going to appreciate any of these recommendations if you consistently remind them or — even worse — “nag” them. Let them tell you how they are feeling and how they may be struggling. Then ask them if they want some help with problem solving. They are much more likely to hear your suggestions when they are asking for them. In order to support college students’ need for social interaction and growing independence in college, work together to develop a list of safe activities and identify any barriers to the student’s participation. Try to keep an open mind as you weigh the risks/benefits of each option together.

Supporting off-campus online college

Parents may also be looking for ways to support students who are unexpectedly attending college online at home. Understandably, these students are likely to encounter a variety of challenges, from difficulties with classwork to maintaining social contact. Parents may also be struggling with navigating their young adult’s desire for independence while they are living at home, especially for students who previously attended college on campus. We suggest the above recommendations for discussing COVID-19 precautions with your student living at home. Additionally, here are a few recommendations for parents and students to improve their off-campus college experience.

  • Create a learning space. It is important that your college student have a dedicated learning space where they can attend class and complete schoolwork. As much as possible, this space should be distraction-free and have the materials necessary for effective learning. Ask your college student what would be helpful — do they need better headphones for listening to lectures, or a more comfortable desk chair? Do they need to buy a used desk, or transform an unused table into a workspace? The student should feel confident that they are able to use this space as needed. If the space is shared, then it’s important to have proactive discussions to ensure that your child can use their learning space for their schedule needs.
  • Support time management. College is meant to be a time when students develop skills in time management and schedule planning. While the flexibility of online learning may be helpful for some students, it may also promote additional procrastination or inefficiencies. Students will find it beneficial to create a daily routine for attending classes and completing homework, as well as putting times in their schedule for fun/social activities, exercise and relaxation. Students will also find it easier to concentrate when they complete schoolwork in their learning space.
  • Supporting academic needs. For students with premorbid learning or attention difficulties, they may have more difficulty with online off-campus learning. Research what resources their college provides for online learning, and encourage your student to contact the college’s office for disability services to learn about what accommodations may be available to them.
  • Foster independence and communicate expectations clearly. While your child may have spent every night with the family during high school, nightly family time was probably not how they envisioned their college experience. Remember that social interaction is an important part of college life, and it’s healthy for your student to desire alone time and social time. To avoid arguments and disappointment, have proactive discussions with your student. If there are important house rules for your child to follow, explain them clearly (your child is not a mind-reader!) with a brief explanation. Let them know that you want to enjoy this unexpected time together, and also want to respect their need for independence. Instead of trying to completely control your child’s routine (as that is likely to frustrate your child, and push them farther away), talk about scheduling a few weekly family activities and let your student have time on their own. When you have conversations about maintaining safety while socializing with their friends, remember: Be informed, empathize, keep a neutral tone and problem-solve collaboratively.

What to do if your child needs mental health support

Whether your college student is on or off campus, they are likely to be experiencing some level of anxiety, frustration or irritability during this time of uncertainty. While some anxiety or mood changes are normal reactions to stressful experiences, too much of either can be a problem. If you notice that your child’s anxiety or mood changes are making it hard for them to get through their routines, or they no longer seem interested in their typical pleasurable activities, then these symptoms may be signs that your child would benefit from additional support. We recommend that you provide your college student with information about their college’s counseling center. For students who are off campus, many counseling centers are providing multiple self-help resources, as well as online mental health services.


Kelsey Borner Kelsey Borner, Ph.D., is a pediatric pain psychologist. She is specializes in working with youth with various chronic pain conditions, functional symptom disorders (including functional neurological symptoms and psychogenic non-epileptic spells) and other nervous system disorders (including Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome; POTS).
Sarah Hornack Sarah Hornack, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in the Division of Psychology and Behavioral Health at Children's National Hospital. She has expertise in pediatric psychology, which addresses psychological aspects of illness and the promotion of health behaviors.

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