Prepare for Your College Student’s Return for the Holidays

For college students, this has been a semester like no other. The majority attended classes online and, because of coronavirus surges on campus, they have had to endure a host of restrictions — from rules against socializing to fewer dining options to limited or no access to libraries and gyms.

“Rates of anxiety, depression and general malaise among my college patients have never been this bad, even compared to after 9/11,” said Dr. Julia Turovsky, a clinical psychologist in Chatham, N.J.

Now many are planning to come home for Thanksgiving and stay for an extended period — numerous colleges have cut short their semester and won’t resume classes until January — so planning for your student’s return to the nest will take some extra thought and preparation. First, there is the issue of getting them home safely with as little exposure to the coronavirus as possible. And once they’re back, the challenge is managing expectations that come with a pandemic, especially related to socializing, house rules and mental health.

Experts recommend that students, whether they live on campus or off, start taking action two weeks before leaving school. They should get a flu vaccine, avoid spending time with people unless they are roommates or housemates, maintain hand hygiene and consistently wear a mask to minimize the risk of coronavirus exposure. Another option would be to have your child come home a week early, combining a level of quarantine and testing to minimize risk to family members.

“I’d have a kid come home a week before Thanksgiving, quarantine under the eyes of parents, not see friends, monitor her for symptoms and, if there aren’t any after the week, have her tested,” said Dr. David Rubin, a pediatrician and public health expert at the University of Pennsylvania. “A negative test a week out can work since 80 percent of people will develop symptoms within a week.”

For many students, however, it may not be feasible to come home early. In this case, Dr. Rubin warns that, because a potential infection can take up to 14 days to show itself, it is not good enough if your child tests negative at school and then travels by train, bus, plane or car with others, intending to join a family celebration a day or two later. “Their arrival on Wednesday with plans to see grandma on Thursday could pose a huge risk,” Dr. Rubin said.

“The best travel option is private transportation by the student or with a family member,” said Dr. Anita Barkin, one of the co-chairs of the American College Health Association’s Covid-19 Task Force, which recently released guidelines for returning home that offer risk-reduction strategies for students, day-of-travel suggestions and tips for at-home quarantining. “Once at home,” Dr. Barkin said, “the most cautious recommendation would be to stay physically distant for the first 14 days from other household members, wear a mask, no kissing or hugging, wipe surfaces down and use separate eating utensils.”

Getting students home physically safe is only part of the equation. Realize that you may not know how they adjusted emotionally to the pandemic while at school.

For some students, the regulations and confinement have become the new normal. College seniors have missed out on internships and on-campus recruiting, freshmen have had limited opportunities to make friends and many athletes and artists have been unable to play and perform. “Most are pretty resilient, and they figure out how to deal with the stress and accept that it’s a global crisis, and they’re not being singled out,“ said Dr. Benjamin Shain, the head of child and adolescent psychiatry at NorthShore University HealthSystem in Chicago.

For others, however, the restrictions and lockdowns have significantly impacted their mental well being. A survey of 144 colleges conducted by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors this fall reported a 57-percent increase in anxiety among students and an 81-percent increase in loneliness, compared to the first four weeks of fall 2019.

“College kids have lost the balance between work and play. Most campuses are quiet, kids can’t have parties, they are sitting in dorms, hanging out with a few friends, doing work, with nothing to look forward to and no break from the redundance,” said Dr. Julia Turovsky, a clinical psychologist in Chatham, N.J. “Parents may need to give them time to recuperate, hibernate and rest and not take it personally.”

For kids who have a history of depression or struggle with social anxiety, the pandemic may be especially challenging. “I always encourage parents to share the burden by getting their kids additional resources, such as therapy or online support, and to maintain regularly scheduled medical appointments,” Dr. Turovsky said. “The pediatrician, internist and gynecologist are good resources to screen for issues and provide guidance and recommendations, so parents should encourage their kids to set those up.”

Your child may return expecting to hang out with groups of high school friends or, if she is 21, to go to bars in states where they are open. Have a conversation about rules around socializing and remind them that safety comes first.

Once you do, allow your child to express her opinion and leave room to negotiate. “Some parents are OK with small groups hanging out in the basement, and some feel comfortable with kids creating a ‘pod’ of like-minded friends who agree to only hang out with each other,” Dr. Turovsky said.

Last summer, before her twins left for their freshman year, Laurie Wolk, of Larchmont, N.Y., asked each to make a list of three friends they would have come into the house and whose parents Mrs. Wolk might speak to about exposure. “It gave me comfort knowing who was coming in and out and what chances I was taking,” said Mrs. Wolk. The sooner you address the issue, the more time you’ll have to explore arrangements that work for both of you.

If your child’s friends come inside your home, for example, you can ask them to wear a mask and keep a safe distance. But spending time with friends outdoors with masks while maintaining physical distance remains the safest plan. Firepits and controlled outdoor gatherings will go a long way.

And, try to cut your child some slack this holiday season. “Parents and children can set each other off, resulting in huge arguments,” Dr. Shain said. “If parents can recognize that the argument may be connected to the kid who has to come home and stay because of Covid, maybe they can give the kid a break with picking up clothes, not doing the dishes and using a softer tone of voice.”

Spending time together outdoors on a walk or hike is a great way to reduce stress and to give your child an opportunity to share her experience. “Parents have the tendency to give advice, but it’s critical to listen,” Dr. Shain said. “Ask pertinent questions, but mostly stay quiet and let your kid vent. And after, you can do some collaborative problem-solving. The ability to have a conversation with your child is incredibly important.”

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