They’re Back! The Delicate Dance of Navigating Family Boundaries During Quarantine

They’re Back! The Delicate Dance of Navigating Family Boundaries During Quarantine

Source: Boston University Parent and Family Programs

By: Liz Yokubison

Updated: April 3, 2020


Across the country and around the world, social distancing and stay-at-home orders associated with COVID-19 have disrupted everyday life. Even college students are not immune to these unprecedented times.

With campuses shut down and students returning home to finish the semester online, some parents/guardians are breathing a collective sigh of relief at having them home safe and sound. Many are also struggling with how to deal with the rapidly changing emotions of college students experiencing disappointment at not being able to finish out the school year on campus. The key to adjusting to this “new normal” is for parents and guardians to allow their kids to still be college students. Just in a different location.

College Time vs Parent Time

My husband and I have a running joke that when our college-aged twins come home to visit the entire household switches over to college time. Much to the chagrin of our dog, who is used to a bedtime that doesn’t even approach midnight. While this is fun for a few days, given the new reality of college students living at home for a more significant amount of time, it’s simply not realistic. So, should parents/guardians require that students follow the same schedule as the rest of the family?

Stacey Harris, Associate Director of Disability & Access Services at Boston University suggests a different approach. “I think that what parents need to understand is that these brilliant humans are different than when they left home. They have evolved into young adults, with new rituals and routines, and having their moment stop is hard. No matter what the cause,” she says.

Many students are frustrated to be living with their parents when they are used to being independent at college. “We’re seeing in our students the same thing that everyone is feeling given these uncertain times: anxiety, anger, and grief from mourning the life they had at school,” notes Harris. Think about where they are supposed to be right now. They are students first and foremost. She suggests asking your student what their school schedule is and being flexible about it. Allowing them to stay on college time, while respecting that rest of the household isn’t, is one way of giving them the space they need. They may study late, have classes during dinnertime, work out at odd hours. That’s okay, that’s what they’ve been doing.

The flip side of course, is that many parents/guardians are now working from home as well. Which means a lot of people in one house or apartment with conflicting schedules. As parents we need to practice self-care and time for ourselves. Whether it’s getting outside to walk the dog or exercise or retreating to a bubble bath for some much-needed alone time.

Online Learning Challenges

With traditional college courses suddenly transforming to online learning, a whole new set of challenges arise for students now living at home. Since my kids are science majors, one of their primary concerns about online classes was how professors were going to be able to teach labs. To say that it was disheartening that my son couldn’t build an actual product for his product design class, using BU’s EPIC lab, is an understatement. And my daughter is missing the hands-on experience from her cell bio lab, where they had a chance to isolate DNA just before her campus shut down.

In addition to these challenges, staying motivated to attend class and complete assignments is hard for those who enjoy the collaboration of working in groups or with study partners. Students are also missing the social engagement in class, given the fact that most of them never signed up to be online learners in the first place.

But the biggest challenge for students is to find their own workspace at home. “Students are not always finding a private place to study, and they need help being creative,” says Harris. Some are studying in bed and having trouble transitioning from taking classes online to chatting with their friends, while others need to find their own space to study without interruption and the privacy to talk loudly while in class. Parents can help by problem solving with their student to find an appropriate place for them to study. It’s a great time to get creative. Move furniture around, cover up a doorway, let them do what they need to create a study space that works for them.

Another option is reaching out to university staff who are more than happy to help. “We are here, reaching out and engaging,” says Harris. “We want to work with students, each step of the way and want them to know we miss seeing their faces. We do this work, because we love young people and no matter where they are, we are with them in this and want to connect.”

And for those students lucky enough to have their own room at home, it’s important for parents/guardians to respect their space and their privacy. Resist the urge to poke your head in and check-in with your student. Nothing is more mortifying than having mom or dad interrupt a study session or worse, a live class. I think of my student’s rooms at home like mini apartments. When they emerge, I’m happy to see them, but the rest of the time I do my best to leave them alone.

Chore Charts – A Definite “No”

Parents and guardians are discovering that with college kids living at home, comes an increase in the sheer volume of household tasks. And while this may seem like a great time to invoke the dreaded chore charts of elementary days gone by, try to refrain from treating your young adults like children.

Since I broke my leg just a few weeks before our students returned home, we decided to ask them how they wanted to contribute around the house. Each of them offered to cook dinner one night a week, in addition to other tasks that they volunteered for themselves. The key was letting them decide on specific ways to contribute instead of assigning tasks to them.

Stacey Harris cautions that some students may be struggling more than others during this time of uncertainty. “If a student typically has a little anxiety, they may have a lot right now. Which means some aren’t going to be able to help as much around the house because this is really hard stuff. I’d honor where they are. It’s been a bumpy road for everyone. It may take time to set up the same or similar supports and routines that were working for them at school,” she advises.

The bottom line? Try not to be rigid and instead give everyone in the household a little more grace than usual. This is no time to take things personally, when everyone’s emotions are elevated. And most importantly avoid nagging at all costs. If you smother college students, they will likely do the exact opposite of what you’re asking. Harris suggests a 10-minute check-in to say, “Do you need anything? What’s your schedule? You are awesome and I love you.”

Dealing with the Uncertainty

Each student will have their own way of dealing with the uncertainty of how long this season of life at home will last. According to Harris, “Young people aren’t generally great at sitting with discomfort and the world is really uncomfortable right now.” She makes a point of telling her students that she doesn’t have all the answers, but in 30 days she knows she’s going to have a lot more, not all, but more. So, it’s time to just focus on self-care and studying. That’s their job right now.

Even though the news today can be toxic, and admittedly harder for parents who see it with a different lens than college students, Harris advises against trying to regulate it. The reality is that they’re getting news in various forms from peers, emails, and online and are fully aware of what is happening in the world right now.

“If you think of a young person with anxiety, they are usually panicked by something they can’t see,” says Harris. “But right now, there really is an actual thing to be afraid of – a proverbial boogie man in the closet.” The best thing that parents and guardians can do is ask students what they’re concerned about and simply have a dialogue. Don’t try to fix it, because we can’t. It’s truly out of our control. Just be there. Validate that this is real and hard. Be human. It’s a complicated time for everyone. Many of us are stressed. Try not to take anything personally.

Parents of Seniors

My heart goes out to seniors who are mourning the loss of their senior year of college and are uncertain about what the future holds. Both of my kids have close friends who were supposed to be walking across the stage, replete in cap and gown, to accept their hard-earned diploma and step out into the real world in only a matter of weeks. So, what can senior parents do to help ease the inevitable disappointment?

Harris says to remind senior students that, “BU has been here forever and always will be. We offer all kinds of amazing support to get them through this wonky time. Their job right now is to be amazing students. That is what they should focus on.” Most importantly she says, “We are going to try to do something for seniors, we so very much want to celebrate them and not every school is going to do that. We hope to find a way down the road. We just want it to be safe. They deserve it!”

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