How Students Can Create Safe Covid Boundaries, How Parents Can Help

This fall, when we dropped our daughter off to begin her freshman year I was confident that when it comes to sexual consent, she understood how to advocate for herself. As a healthy sexuality educator, that was something I made sure of over the course of many (my daughter might say too many) conversations throughout middle and high school.

However, when she sent an SOS text a couple of nights ago because she was at a loss for how to set boundaries with a friend whose roommate had tested positive for Covid, I realized I had forgotten something very important.

My daughter was at a loss for how to create safe social boundaries at college due to Covid. (Twenty20 @justingovender_)

Consent skills for Covid-19

I had never talked to my daughter about how consent skills can be applied in non-sexual situations, which can feel entirely different to young people. It’s an important conversation for parents to have with their college students before and during their time in college—ideally before you get that SOS text! 

The Challenge

Many adults find it hard to navigate the different needs and boundaries of friends, relatives, and colleagues when trying to be Covid-careful. Many of us fear offending others. We second guess our intuition because we don’t want to be judged. Some are just fatigued by the inconvenience of it all.

Masks and other precautionary measures have been politicized and become symbolic of values like individual rights and community responsibility. Inconsistency in our leaders’ approaches to public health have only added to the confusion. It’s tricky for adults to know how to approach this, so imagine how hard it is for young people–many of whom are leaving home for the first time—to manage Covid concerns on top of the other challenges of college life?

How can we help them prioritize their well- being and that of others when they are away from us? 

The Context

Adolescents are developmentally programmed to individuate from their parenting adults, and neurologically programmed to seek connection with others and actively engage in friendships. Since colleges and universities shut down and sent students home to shelter in place, many of my students who are in college are feeling socially isolated; some feel their mental health is compromised by the loneliness they’ve experienced during the shutdown. 

We haven’t seen our friends since March. If I know they are in a dorm across campus, I’m going to want to see them.

Owen Killy, 19, Hobart College

School has always been a place where kids not only engage in academics, but also meet the developmental tasks of forming relationships. After months of pent up desire for fun and play, it’s no wonder colleges around the country are having problems managing Covid contagion.

Many college students want to hang out and party, and their developing brains are not always equipped to think rationally about potential risks. This isn’t true of all college students, of course; many are conscious of the risks and are committed to prioritizing health. But once they get to campus, they may find it hard to maintain the safety practices they’ve followed at home with their families, particularly if they’re surrounded by peers who don’t share their caution. 

According to Rick Weissbourd, Director of Human Development and Psychology at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard,

Adolescents can learn skills that they can transfer across contexts, but there are also context-specific challenges that we should be preparing adolescents to meet. What it takes to say “no” in one context may be quite different from what it takes to say “no” in another context. This isn’t just true for adolescents. It’s true for all of us. 

Rick Weissbourd, Director of Human Development and Psychology at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard. 

Parents can help their students stay safe by talking to them ahead of time about circumstances they’re likely to face and how to navigate them. Parents can start the conversation by saying something like, “I know you’ve missed your friends and you are going to want to socialize when you get to school, and it’s in all of our best interest that you stay healthy. I’m curious to know how you plan to manage that.” 

Prioritize Well-Being

All parents want their children to be safe and healthy. The ever changing and sometimes contradictory onslaught of information we’ve received since the beginning of the pandemic has many of us teeter-tottering on how to balance our college kids’ mental wellness and emotional needs with their physical health and the health of the broader community.  The college students I’ve spoken to tell me that there is as much diversity in Covid vigilance and preventative practice as there are individual personalities.

When it comes to the possibility of getting sick, some students are frightened, but others are more cavalier:  

Lots of kids feel like they’ve already had it without symptoms or that when young people get it, it’s mild.

Genevieve Nichol,19, University of Southern California

Other students are not so concerned for themselves, but worry about older people, like professors and members of the custodial staff who could experience life-threatening complications if infected.

It’s a clear choice. Going to someone’s dorm or apartment to hang out and party, or a socially distanced walk? They’re going to the dorm.

Owen Killy

Everyone is being tested so often that there is a complacency among students, like we are one gigantic pod even though people are still moving on and off campus. So people get lax and that’s scary.

Ford Leary, 18, Northeastern University

Covid and Consent

Consent is educating others how to treat you, and listening to how others want to be treated. It’s an agreement giving and receiving permission for something to happen between people.

Within a pandemic college context, the agreement could be about who or how many people you’re comfortable with in your room. Or it could be about when you’ll wear masks outside of class. Or about the distance between you and a teammate while training on a field. It could be about whether or not you feel comfortable attending large frat parties, or spending the night in a romantic interest’s room.

But I knew that I was going to be missing out on a lot of a normal college experience already, so I didn’t want to come across as a hypochondriac or stickler.

Charlie, 18, the University of Wisconsin

Other students I talked to don’t want to offend new acquaintances and potential friends. Feeling the need to protect one’s reputation while making new friends, avoiding contention in friend groups or dorms, or social power dynamics based on age or popularity can get in the way of communicating limits.

If you don’t know someone well enough to be direct it’s hard, because you want to make friends and be well liked, not judged for being uptight or overreacting to the situation.

Claire Rosedale,18, University of Colorado

The Script

As a parent, considering  harm reduction and risk on a continuum will help you help your college student assess the spectrum of risky behaviors as it relates to Covid. Sit down with your student, and have a conversation about what typical college activities and behaviors are less risky and which are more.

Discuss how to minimize risk and clarify what’s negotiable and what’s not. You may begin with, “Given the precautions you think are important, what behavior would you definitely say yes to? And, “What’s an absolute no?” Take it further by asking, “What’s a maybe and what would it take to move a maybe to the yes or no category?”

Remind students not to assume their precautions (or lack thereof) are the same as anyone else’s, “How can you know what someone is comfortable with or not? What is the best way to ask them?  What if it’s awkward, how might you move beyond the awkwardness?”

My students on college campuses suggest using casual language to assert a limit. If someone who isn’t as Covid conscious and is about to enter your dorm room, Charlie asks “Yo, have you been to any crazy parties recently, cuz we’re trying not to get sent home?” or if someone is showing symptoms, you can say something like, “Hey, are you all right, what’s going on? Maybe we should play it safe and see what’s up when you get results back.”

Genevieve, who got the virus in her first week on campus, told a new friend who proposed an indoor meet-up, “Why don’t we do something outside, cuz you don’t know where I’ve been and I don’t know where you’ve been.” By being mindful of the other person’s wellbeing, you’re more likely to and avoid offense. 

Parents can help their student anticipate challenging scenarios, and brainstorm ways to handle them proactively. Students might consider putting a sign on their door that balances humor with caution: a funny meme that gets the point across, for example, or a picture of friends in masks with a clever play on words.

Ford Leary wears a hand sanitizer bottle on a key chain hooked to his belt loop. “I didn’t want anyone to think I was some clean freak, but I’ve only gotten compliments and people get where I’m coming from,” he said. 

Practice having tough conversations with your college student

Practice is also key. Discuss scenarios that your college student may be confronted with and play them out in different ways. Get concrete with language, and encourage them to think about the words they’ll use in a given situation. 

All the students I talked to for this article suggest using an excuse if necessary. For example, your student could say something like, “My folks are coming for family weekend and I can’t expose them to anything—they are high risk.” Or, “My good friend is immunocompromised and I’m being careful for them.”

Even if such statements stretch the truth, a little truth stretching is okay if it makes it easier to work through the complexities of building a social life in college while staying healthy and keeping others healthy as well.  

Many parents would likely feel better about sending their teen to college during the pandemic if there were bodyguards on hand to manage all social interactions. While college during right now presents challenges, it also provides our students the opportunity to develop and practice skills that will enrich their capacity for meaningful relationships, including the ability to recognize and communicate personal desires and boundaries.

As Ford puts it: “How people treat others when things get hard really reveals who they are and if you want to be friends with them or not. I choose the ones who care.”

You Might Also Want to Read:

Eleven Ways the Pandemic Might Change College Forever

About Shafia Zaloom

Shafia Zaloom is a health educator and national consultant who specializes in teaching young people about healthy sexuality and relationships. She is the author of the book Sex, Teens & Everything in Between.

Read more posts by Shafia

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