The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Colleges can be covid-19 hotspots. Here’s how to talk to your kid about safety.

Placeholder while article actions load

Before dropping their teens off at college this year, many parents had a version of “the talk” — except this one focused more on the coronavirus pandemic than sex.

“It’s extremely scary,” said Jennifer Velarde, 47, who in August sent her first child to away to college about an hour from their Twin Cities home. “We have to put a lot of faith that . . . he knows what’s right and wrong and how to protect himself, and not only himself, but his peers and his professors and then us.”

During the pandemic, sending your child to college might feel like a tough assignment. Here’s how to cope.

But despite parents’ efforts to prepare their children and the extensive safety protocols set up by colleges and universities, the novel coronavirus has infiltrated campuses nationwide, turning many into covid-19 hot spots in just a matter of weeks. With cases continuing to rise, forcing switches to online-only classes and strict dorm lockdowns, parents have found themselves trying to figure out how to communicate their concerns from afar.

Discussions about safety, especially during a pandemic, need to be ongoing, said Ludmila De Faria, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Florida who specializes in college mental health.

“It can’t be just one conversation when you drop them off at college and you’re like, ‘Remember to wear your mask, use hand sanitizer, don’t congregate with more than four people, maintain your social distancing,’ and then it’s like you forget about it,” she said.

On the other hand, she added, constantly expressing your worries and trying to dictate your child’s behavior probably will do more harm than good.

She and other experts offered tips for finding the right balance when discussing how your kids can stay safe from the virus.

Don't interrogate

“If [parents] have a checklist that says, ‘Are you wearing your mask? Are you gathering with fewer than six people? Are you staying six feet apart?,’ I mean, that will get old very, very quickly,” said Karen Coburn, a former assistant vice chancellor and author of “Letting Go: A Parents’ Guide to Understanding the College Years.” She added, “You can’t expect to have an open relationship if you interrogate your child rather than having a conversation.”

Universities sound alarm as coronavirus cases emerge just days into classes — 530 at one campus

De Faria recommended framing your questions to focus on what people around your child are doing. For example, ask whether your child’s friends are being safe or whether anyone on campus is getting sick.

“Kids in college still have very much that mentality of doing things in groups,” she said. “If you ask them if their friends are wearing masks, and not congregating and following the guidelines, that’s a good indication that their kids will be doing it, too.”

You should also work on managing your own stress, said Mercedes Samudio, a licensed psychotherapist specializing in parenting and families.

“Don’t get stressed out every time you hear a news story and call them with it, but really learn how to sit with your own fears and your own worries first,” she said.

As colleges reopened, many more young people got covid-19, CDC reports

Don't lecture

This is not the time to lecture your college-age child about safety or scold them when they stray from the guidelines, experts say.

Instead, aim for the “Goldilocks Zone,” said Gloria DeGaetano, founder and chief executive of the Parent Coaching Institute, which has its headquarters in Bellingham, Wash.

“It’s not overly permissive, and it isn’t overly controlling,” DeGaetano said. In this zone, you are able to maintain your authority but still be gentle, caring and supportive.

“You’re not policing,” she said. “You’re investing in the child’s growth, and you’re working to give that young adult what he or she needs to develop optimally in the best way you can.”

That often means being realistic about the amount of control you have over your child and prioritizing compromise, experts say.

“You’re going to have to begin to accept that they will make some mistakes and hopefully the mistakes won’t be costly,” De Faria said.

Despite pandemic, some college students want to be on or near campus. Here are ways for them to reduce their risks.

Stick to the facts

Coburn recommended relying on facts when addressing behavior you feel could be unsafe — for instance, going to a party indoors.

“You just present the reality, the facts, because you can’t say, ‘Well, you’re not allowed to go.’ That doesn’t work,” she said. “So you say, ‘Well, I’m concerned because this is what science says. This is what we know.’ And then maybe have a discussion about it.”

If the child is insistent on going, then you can switch to negotiation, De Faria said. See whether your child would be willing to wear a mask and follow other public health recommendations while they are at the event.

“You can sort of negotiate a place where you will ensure the most sort of safe experience” that avoids “inhibiting the kid from doing things that are age-appropriate,” De Faria said.

Listen to your kid

Give your child a chance to explain how they plan on handling any situations, Samudio said.

“If parents continuously overbear on their child or are really insulting, then this college-age kid is going to just decide they don’t want to talk to you anymore and then you lose all contact and all ability to know how they’re doing,” she said. “They could easily just hang up the phone and do whatever they want.”

When Judith Keyser, 53, was dropping her son off for his first year at Washington University at St. Louis this fall, she emphasized that she would be there if he needed her guidance.

“I was like, ‘I’m your mom and I’m going to give you the best advice that I can with no agenda, and I have absolutely no agenda except to see you healthy, happy,’ ” said Keyser, who lives in Seattle and also has a daughter in her junior year at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. “That’s what I explained to both of them, him especially, just to let them know that I’m going to say these things and you can just take them either way.”

Velarde said she has taken a similar approach with her son, a freshman at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota.

“When they’re little, you hold their hand,” she said. “Then when you graduate, now it’s time for me to let go of holding your hand and instead help by using words. I try to guide him, not tell him what to do.”