Campuses are closed, internships and job offers have vanished and millions of college students who had been enjoying young adult independence are home again for who knows how long as the COVID-19 pandemic grinds on. If you’re a college student or the parent of one, life under the same roof may be taking a toll.
Thomas Lawson, a clinical mental health counselor, has been hearing all about it lately in his practice at Novant Health Psychiatric Medicine. Parents coping with the sudden return of young adult children along with financial strains, job losses or the challenges of working remotely are "starting to really feel the stress," he says.
Rest assured: It’s possible for parents and their adult children to coexist peacefully under the same roof, Lawson says. He should know: His son and daughter have been at home since mid-March, when their college went to online-only classes.
Once your kids come home, Lawson says, old dynamics will resume — including any personality clashes or rivalries that preceded their departure.
"But if you think it’s going to be just like it was when they left, there’s going to be a lot more stress and heartache," he adds. "They’re used to their schedules, their space, their processes, so it’s going to be hard for them to just give that up. There has to be some negotiation about that when the adult child comes home, because this isn’t going to go away quickly."
It’s all about communication, he says. Here’s Lawson’s advice:
Agree on house rules: Be flexible. Rules such as strict curfews or limits on videogaming and screen time that were in place before your student moved away probably need to be relaxed. Talk expectations through.
Understand the grief: Your adult children miss their friends and their freedom, and their usual support system is gone. Those who have lost job opportunities may also fear their success in school won’t ever pay off. Considering how you would have reacted to those losses at their age will help you respond appropriately to their sadness, anger, disappointment, fear and loneliness, Lawson said. Assure them this setback is only temporary.
College kids are night owls: They’re likely to be revving up when you’re slowing down. Agree on a cutoff time for potentially disruptive activities, such as playing music or doing laundry. A white-noise machine or noise-canceling ear buds can help you get your z’s.
Take time for self-reflection: Consider how your behavior affects others in your home. "If everybody can do that and talk about it and apologize when they are wrong, the better things will be," Lawson says. Try to lighten up: Learn to laugh at yourself.
Respect privacy: Everyone in the household needs personal space and privacy. Stake out a place where you can be alone with your thoughts and decompress.
Stay active: Even if everyone in the house is doing their own thing, look for opportunities to spend a little time together. Activities like watching a movie, thumbing through an old photo album, trying out a new recipe or discovering local greenways will help the whole family relax. Be sure you make time for exercise.
Treat your kids like adults: Allow them to make choices and succeed or fail on their own, Lawson urges. And give them opportunities to contribute to the household — cooking, cleaning, doing yardwork. If that’s an expectation, make sure everyone is on the same page. No assumptions allowed. And remember: They’re not 24/7 errand runners; many are taking classes online or have jobs of their own.
Monitor mental health: Don’t ignore signs of depression or anxiety. Ask your loved one what’s going on. Think about professional help if needed. Red flags include using drugs or alcohol to cope, feeling sad most days, sleep problems, lack of appetite, feelings of hopelessness or helplessness or an inability to focus (such as moving from room to room, task to task). It’s important for young people who were being treated on campus for mental health issues to continue treatment, Lawson says, and not to abruptly quit taking prescription medications.
Focus on the big picture: Remind young adults that when they stay at home or practice social distancing, they’re protecting loved ones and helping combat the pandemic. "Tell them they’re a bigger part of the societal picture of how to get through this," Lawson says. Set a good example, and they are likely to follow your lead.
Trust one another: Agree on steps you expect everyone in the household to take to prevent the spread of COVID-19. You might, for instance, be OK with your daughter visiting a boyfriend whose outside contacts are limited, but not with her going to large gatherings. Trust everyone to live within the agreed-to limits.
Make changes: If an adult child ignores your expectations, or your life together is causing anxiety or depression, consider a different living arrangement. Money saved when campus closed might help them pay for a room or apartment closer to their friends and support systems, Lawson says.
More for parents: For more tips on pandemic parenting, Lawson recommends visiting the National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health or the Triple P program.
North Carolina residents who are in emotional distress — or would like guidance on helping someone they know who is struggling with depression, anxiety, alcohol or drug use — can call a free 24-hour helpline at 800-718-3550 to speak with a counselor. The service, provided by Novant Health, connects callers with a master's level therapist who can offer immediate guidance and help determine possible next steps, which could include a further assessment or connection to community resources for those in need.
As of June 1, Thomas Lawson is officially a licensed clinical mental health counselor. The state previously called this licensed mental health professional.
Caption: The Lawson family L-R: Michelle, Emma, Ryan and Thomas.