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How to Help Your College Kid With COVID-19 Stress

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

Meet The Team >

The stress of the coronavirus pandemic affects everyone.

The doctors, nurses, and frontline healthcare workers working every day feel it. Their patients sick with COVID-19 feel it. Their families feel it, too. Public health officials, elected officials, business owners, public safety officers, people who work in essential industries, people who lost their jobs, people who kept their jobs but work from home – they all feel the pressure.

We’re all feeling the stress, anxiety, and uncertainty of it all.

Parents feel it for their kids.

Kids feel it for their parents.

Everyone empathizes with people living in the hardest hit areas: we see the images on television and read the reports in our news feed.

The entire country is under stress, and every person has their unique set of obstacles, worries, and unanswerable questions to wrestle with every day.

This article is about a specific group of people who are in a transformative period of their lives right now: college students.

The Effect of COVID-19 on College Students

The issues college students face as a result of the coronavirus pandemic are not homogeneous, because the college population of the U.S. is as diverse as the country itself. College students come from every possible background: ethnic, social, economic, cultural, and religious. Some arrived from halfway around the world six months ago to get an education here. Others were born and raised here, have children, work full-time, and take classes part-time at a local community college. Most are somewhere in between: attending college somewhere away from home, but home now because of COVID-19.

Some are in a real bind: they can’t get home, they can’t go back to their dorms, and they’re scrambling to figure out where they’re going to live, how they’re going to eat, and how they’re going to make it to the other side of this crisis with some semblance of the lives they were living less than three months ago intact.

We mention these students because this article is about a particular group of college students facing their particular set of challenges: the “somewhere in between” group we mentioned above. They’re home because their schools have closed for the rest of the year. They’re finishing the semester online, trying to figure out what that really means for their grades, their academic career, and their plans for the future.

How do parents of these college students help them manage their stress?

Here are our top suggestions to make these next few months go as smoothly as possible, given the circumstances.

Three Tips for Parents of College Kids Stressed Out Over COVID-19

1. Validate their emotions.

Your college-age child probably has a lot to be thankful for. First, they’re living at home. That’s huge. It means they have a roof over their head and most likely means they have food to eat. However, telling them to be thankful for these basics will not change the fact their emotions around school cancellation are real. Yes, it’s good to give them that reality check. It’s also important to note that a big part of what they’re feeling – whether they recognize this or not – is sadness and grief, which stems from loss. They’ve lost part of their college experience. Some have lost study abroad plans. Some are missing out on significant rituals, like graduation and awards ceremonies. Those in fraternities and sororities are missing the year-end social events. College athletes are missing entire seasons, and some are missing tournaments and events for which they’ve trained for years.

The takeaway from this point is that while their emotions are all over the map, much of their emotional disturbance right now may be tied to grief and loss. Therefore, empathize and be compassionate: that’s what people dealing with grief and loss need most.

2. Help them figure out grades.

This is a big deal: your college student needs to finish this semester with their standing intact. That means understanding their school policies on grades, and adjusting behavior and attitudes according the new reality. Some schools are switching to pass/fail, some schools are offering the option to choose pass/fail or a letter grade, some schools are offering hybrid approaches that combine a letter-influence system and a pass-fail system. What you can do, as a parent, is help your college student get clarity on exactly what their school policy is, and if there’s independent choice involved, what choice is best for them: pass/fail, letter grade, or something in between.

3. Help them finish the semester strong.

Spring break may have already happened, or it may happen while your college-age kid is home for COVID-19, but there’s something important they need to know: this is not a vacation. School is not out for the summer, quite yet. They can’t drop the ball. Or rather, you need to step in to make sure they don’t drop the ball. As much as they may kvetch and complain, work with them to create a schedule that sets them up for success. The schedule needs to include all the essential you include in your new work-from-home schedule, if that’s what you’re doing now. That means they need to define time for virtual classes, studying, exercising, eating regular and healthy meals, hobbies, and connecting with friends and classmates. To help them set a workable schedule, read our post here on working from home during COVID-19. We can’t stress this point enough: the rest of this semester is not something to throw away. They worked hard through the year. They can buckle down and make it through these last couple of months – with your guidance.

Those three tips will help you and your college-age child get through the rest of the spring, and finish this year on relatively solid ground. There’s a hole, here though: these are short-term fixes for the acute problems they face. There are big-picture concerns here, though, that they may not have considered yet – but you need to be ready for them.

Patience and Perspective

The big-picture concerns are real. When your college-age child gets around to thinking about them, they’ll probably ask themselves questions like these:

  • How will all this affect grad school applications?
  • Will all this affect my summer internship, which was going to set me up for a career?
  • How will a pass/fail class affect my GPA, which could, in turn, affect my current grad school or job applications?
  • Will I lose my scholarship if my grades drop because I can’t pass this really hard online physics class?

All valid questions.

And all, right now, with no real answers, because we simply don’t know yet. No one does. Everyone is hard at work on these details right now. The best you can hope to do is communicate early and often with everyone involved. Talk to their current school, their prospective schools, their internships, and their potential employers. Reach out, talk to a real human, find out where they are in their institutional decision-making process, and go from there.

It’s an imperfect plan, but we’re all living with imperfection on multiple levels right now. We have to accept that and do our best. Your job, as a parent, inside of all of this, is to act as a stable, calm, grounding voice of wisdom and comfort.

Practical Advice

There are several ways to be that for your college-age child, with regards to the big-picture, college/grad school/job-related ambiguities. First, encourage them to think of things from the school’s perspective: they want everyone to succeed. It’s in their best interest. They want their students to get passing grades. They want them to graduate on time, get into reputable grad schools, and secure stable employment upon graduation. The same goes with their potential grad schools and employers: grad schools want good students, and employers want good employees. They want fair and equitable outcomes that are beneficial for everyone.

Finally, remind them that every person they’re communicating with – schools, employers, everyone – is in the same boat. They’re trying to figure the whole COVID-19 lockdown thing, too. They’re doing their best, like all of us are: you’re there to help your kids remember that.

One last thing: many colleges have already opened registration for Fall 2020. Don’t forget that while we don’t know exactly what life after COVID-19 will look like, we – meaning you and your college-age kid – have to plan as if schools will re-open in the fall.

That means they need to get registered now, though no one knows what will happen.

That’s also why finishing this semester strong is important. They need to be ready to hit the ground running next year, in case everything does return to something that looks like normal.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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