Helping Families and Students Adjust to the New Realities of COVID-19

Sunday, March 22, 2020

By Rachel Pierce, Ph.D.
Assistant Director, Rockhurst University Counseling Center

In the span of a week, almost every aspect of life has changed – whether in small or drastic ways. As students transition to online learning at home, many students and families are encountering new challenges together.

Students are quickly figuring out how their classes will operate in an online format, and how to access supports to their learning like tutoring and study groups. In-person learning, student organizations and sports, living with friends/roommates, social experiences, and relationships are all changing. Many are grieving the lost experiences they would have had at school, including many beloved spring semester traditions. All are wondering how these changes will affect their grades and finishing their courses, and most are feeling overwhelmed at times as they learn how each of their classes will take on a new format. Students who are accustomed to independence at school are now adjusting to new expectations at home.

For families, these changes have been just as sudden and drastic. Family members may now be navigating work-from-home, having their college student back home suddenly, helping younger children with distance learning, financial stress if work is limited, and more. Living arrangements may be drastically changed as families who were accustomed to their student living elsewhere must deal with how to live together and share space. This may feel distinctly different from when your student is home for school breaks or summer, since they need to continue their academic work during this time. In short, everything looks completely different for you.

With all these changes and stressors, emotions may be running high – sadness over the lost semester, anxiety over what will happen next, irritability dealing with limited privacy, and more.

Acknowledging these challenges, there are things families can do to navigate this new territory:

  • Communication is everything. Talk, talk, talk. Adjust as circumstances evolve. Talk about shared resources (space, wifi, devices), privacy, and household expectations. It is good practice to have a “family meeting” and may be useful to repeat this every few days for now.
  • Make a family schedule. Post it centrally and adjust as needed. It may need to be different each day. Note times each family member cannot be interrupted (work meeting, taking an exam, important phone calls, etc.). If you need silence or confidentiality talk about how the family will handle that.
  • As possible, set up workspaces for each person. If these need to be shared, schedule times.
  • Adjust your expectations of what this time will look like and how “in control” you will feel. You may have to work or study at times or in spaces that are not ideal for you, such as surrounded by boxes or exercise equipment or kids’ toys. Carve out your space and make it work. Know that you can adapt. You may not be as efficient as usual right now. That is okay.
  • If family relationships are troubled, this may not be the time to work on that. Make it your goal to figure out how to live together in a peaceable way for now.

Considerations for Parents:

  • Be clear about your expectations of your student while living at home. Chores/home responsibilities, helping younger siblings, interacting with each other (e.g., do you expect family dinners?), quiet hours, etc. Consider which of these you can be flexible on and which are inflexible. Seek compromise where there are differences between you and your student.
  • As much as possible, consider giving your student similar freedoms as they have when they are at school. If you are not used to knowing what they are doing all day, consider letting them run their lives in the same way now. Part of college is increased responsibility for managing one’s life – this can and should continue while at home. Likewise, try to afford your student a similar level of privacy as they have when they are at school.

Considerations for Students:

  • Be patient with your parent(s) and family members. This is just as disruptive for them as it is for you. Ask for what you need from your family.
  • Keep connected with campus activities and groups. Information for how to do this will be shared ongoing by the university as plans are developed.
  • Know that it will get better. The chaos we are experiencing now will start to clear up as we improve our plans for remote learning and working.

Positive things Everyone Can Do:

  • In the spirit of ‘finding God (or good) in all things’ look for the silver linings in this situation. Are there things you can do in this time that you otherwise could not have? Are you aware of everyday things that seem more meaningful now? Practicing gratitude has long been shown to reduce stress. Note these “surprise blessings” to yourself and share them with those you are living with.
  • Make stress work for you – the reactions you feel (tension, restlessness, on-edge, etc.) are your brain’s way of giving your body energy for action. Figure out how to use that reaction to help you do what you need to and choose to view it as a good thing.
  • Self-care is more important than ever! Maintain exercise, sleep, heathy diet, structure, and fun – and find ways to adapt these habits as needed under the circumstances.
  • Stay connected to your social supports. Even with social distancing, technology offers wonderful ways to keep in touch with others. Don’t hesitate to let your friends and other supportive people know if you are struggling. Being able to support you will be good for them, and it helps us all realize our reactions are totally normal.
  • When you are feeling overwhelmed, take a moment to consider: who has it worse? If possible, reach out to see if you can assist. Serving others is a powerful way to bring perspective to our own suffering.
  • Extend grace – to yourself and to others. No one knows how to do this; everyone is figuring it out as we go. Offer grace to yourself when things are hard, and to others when things don’t go as they should. Most of all, students should know that grace will be extended to them as we find our new way of doing business.
  • Self-compassion is a wonderful concept for times of difficulty. Take a self-compassion break: Acknowledge “This is a hard time”… “Difficulties are part of life”… “May I be kind to myself in this moment.” You can access other self-compassion exercises at
  • Use the Sanvello app. Students get free premium access with their email address, and Sanvello is now offering free premium access to everyone! This app uses concepts from cognitive-behavioral therapy and mindfulness to teach skills for managing stress, anxiety, and depression. It even has information specific to the COVID-19 crisis. You can set goals for yourself (such as exercise or other habits), learn to change unhealthy thinking patterns, utilize a library of guided meditations, and more. Download Sanvello here.

Big changes, especially when unplanned, can be stressful and even anxiety-producing. Everyone is grasping for a sense of control and normalcy under ever-evolving circumstances. Navigate this situation one step at a time. Keep looking to university communications for additional supports that are being developed for students as we walk as companions together down this new road.