A Parent's Guide: How to Talk to Students About COVID-19

Last updated: Dec 2, 2020

As a parent during COVID-19, you never stop worrying. Are your teens washing their hands enough? Can you trust your college student not to attend that party? Practicing social distancing can be the difference between life and death. But it doesn’t come easily to young adults, who crave the very activities — from spring break to sporting events — that spread infection. That’s why it’s important to communicate health risks and social responsibility during a pandemic. We’ve got your back with A Parent's Guide: How to Talk to Students About Social Distancing and COVID-19.

What Is Social Distancing? 

Social distancing is one of the most effective ways to stop the spread of COVID-19. It means limiting contact with people outside your household as much as possible. For example:

  • Talk to friends and family via video chat instead of in-person meetings.
  • Change work meetings to virtual conferences.
  • Choose outdoor activities, such as a bike ride in the park, over indoor ones. 
  • Avoid large gatherings of people (parties, weddings, funerals, churches, bars, etc.).
  • Opt for curbside pickup or delivery services instead of entering stores, if possible.

When you can’t avoid being around other people, make sure you: 

  • Wear a mask.
  • Keep at least 6 feet away.
  • Avoid touching your face, nose, or mouth.

Practicing good hygiene will also help prevent COVID-19:

  • Wash your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds. Do this frequently, especially after being in public, before you eat or prepare food, and after you cough or sneeze.
  • Disinfect often-touched surfaces in your house, such as countertops, remotes, and door handles. 
  • Wash your cloth mask after each use.

Parent talking with her daughter who is a student about COVID-19 at home.

What Does Social Distancing Look Like for Your Family? 

It’s easy to say we should all practice social distancing. It’s harder to work out what that means on a daily basis. Even something as simple as “dining” looks different depending on the family: Some people visit outdoor cafés, others limit themselves to take-out, and still more avoid restaurant food altogether. 

Talk with your family members to assess your situation and determine what risks you’re willing to take. If you live in an area with severe COVID-19 spread, or if you are in contact with higher-risk people, you may need to take more serious precautions than the average social distancer.

Once you know what precautions your family is taking, you’ll want to communicate this to your child. Of course, your conversation will vary depending on whether they live with you or on campus.  

  • If your young adult lives with you, it’s important they adhere to the same level of social distancing. 
  • If they live on campus but plan to come home often, they’ll still need to follow your guidelines, or else they will risk infecting you when they visit. (People with COVID-19 can be highly contagious even with no symptoms.)
  • If they live on campus and do not plan to visit home, you’ll have less say in how they live their lives. However, you can still have a compassionate, respectful conversation about how they can protect themselves and others. 

How to Talk to Your Child About Social Distancing 

Let’s face it: There’s no easy way to discuss COVID-19 protocols. When you’re talking to a strong-willed teen struggling to assert their independence, it can be even trickier. Follow these tips to avoid arguments and keep the conversation productive. 

Be Empathetic

COVID-19 has already stolen many of your teen’s milestones, from prom to graduation to college road trips. Now they’re facing a college year devoid of quintessential parties, study abroad trips, and sports. If they seem angry about social distancing, they could just be grieving. Take a moment to express compassion over all they’ve lost. “Allow your teenager to sit with the grief rather than offering suggestions like ‘it could be worse’ or ‘it isn't about you,’” says this Mayo Clinic article. “It is about them ― every single bit of it.”

If your child initially shrugs off COVID-19 risks, remind yourself they aren’t being selfish. They’re just young. A Psychology Today article explains three reasons why young adults have trouble with social distancing:

  • Brain development: “The prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until the mid- to late-20s, which leaves many teens and young adults prone to impulsivity and unlikely to consider consequences that an older adult would easily contemplate.”
  • Identify formation: “During this time, they may test rules and boundaries imposed on them by parents and other authority figures not because they want to be contrary, but because they are trying to answer the fundamental questions of ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What can I be?’”
  • A false sense of security: “An illusion of invulnerability may make them believe that the COVID-19 virus could never affect them.”

Communicate the Risks of COVID-19

Try to help your child understand they are not immune:

  • They are facing something much more dangerous than a cold or flu virus. “COVID-19 is around 50 to 100 times more lethal than the seasonal flu, on average,” says this National Geographic article.
  • They could get very sick. COVID-19 isn’t just a respiratory disease. It can damage lungs, cause heart attacks and strokes, and lead to neurological symptoms, among other things. “Some young people will be forever changed by the virus, unable to return to a normal life or work,” according to this Washington Post article. 
  • They could get a chronic condition. Thousands of previously healthy young people have been sick with COVID-19 for months, barely able to do daily tasks like showering or reading a book. There’s even a name for them now: Long haulers.
  • They could be hospitalized and intubated. “The fact is that young people with no clear underlying health conditions are getting seriously ill from COVID-19 in significant numbers,” an internal medicine resident physician wrote in this Atlantic article.
  • They could die. “What I tell people is that COVID-19 is an equal opportunity killer,” said Dr. Faisal Masud, the head of the Center for Critical Care at Houston Methodist Hospital, in this ABC News article. “The myths of security of age are gone.”
  • They might catch the virus more than once. Some young adults think they’ll be immune after getting COVID-19. However, recent information suggests that even recovered people may catch the virus again, and it could be worse the second time.
  • They could unknowingly spread the disease, even if they don’t feel sick. In fact, nearly half of all COVID-19 cases are from asymptomatic spread.

Emphasize the Benefits of Social Distancing, Mask Wearing, and Hand Washing  

Most young adults want to make their mark on the world. Help them understand that taking COVID-19 precautions is a heroic act that literally saves lives: 

Male USF student chatting with his parents on his laptop about COVID-19 while on campus.

Work Together on Solutions

Be careful not to frame this conversation as a lecture. Instead, treat it as a problem-solving exercise. Invite your child to brainstorm solutions about how to keep your family and communities safe. Ask them to read and share articles with you. Actively listen to their suggestions and ideas. 

If you and your child disagree on COVID-19 risks, understand where you need to draw a firm line and where you can compromise. Certain “super-spreader” activities (like going to an indoor gathering or a party) simply have to remain off-limits. But some families have come up with creative solutions to let their teens socialize, like joining “isolation pods” with another family. “To minimize your risk for catching and spreading Covid-19, you’ll want to find a family that is being as careful as you are — a family that is mostly staying home, wearing face coverings when they go out in public, and not otherwise socializing in person,” suggests this New York Times article. Constant communication about everything, including your daily activities like grocery shopping, is key to a successful pod.

Role Play Saying “No” 

Your teen may agree to your social distancing guidelines, only to turn around and break the rules. That’s because rational teens transform into risk-takers when around their friends. It’s just part of their brain development. “When adolescents are thinking about a situation, but not in the heat of the moment — what psychologists refer to as cold cognition — they tend to reason like adults. But when teenagers are with their peers and wanting social acceptance — so-called hot cognition — their good judgment can be readily outmatched by their urge to go with the social flow, even if that flow involves behavior that they know to be problematic,” explains this New York Times columnist. 

What happens when your teen’s friend invites them to a party at college? How do they handle the social consequences of refusing? Brainstorm how to address these situations in advance so your young adult isn’t caught off-guard and peer-pressured into breaking protocol. You may even want to help your young adult craft a sentence they can text as a refusal: “I’d love to come, but I am avoiding in-person events right now because I’m social distancing. How about a virtual game night/dance party instead?” 

Promote Transparency  

Emphasize that honesty is key: If your child does break your rules and go to a party, you don’t want them to hide this information. (This could endanger your family if you’re unaware they’ve been exposed. It could also make your child less likely to admit symptoms and seek early treatment, which is important for COVID-19.) Obviously, you don’t want your child to embrace an ask-for-forgiveness-not-permission approach. But you should encourage a culture of transparency.

Model Good Behavior

People need three things in order to change their behavior, according to an expert cited in this Time article: 

  • They must know what to do
  • They must know why to do it
  • They must see others doing it

You’ve explained to your child what social distancing is and why it’s important. Now model good behavior by following health guidelines in your own life. 

Offer Support and Resources

Before you do anything else, support yourself. You’re a parent during a pandemic: It’s natural to be experiencing a lot of stress. Give yourself the self-care you need to get through the day. Remind yourself that you are a good parent, you’ve raised an intelligent kid, and everything will be OK.

Next, reach out to your child with love and encouragement. Ask them, “What can I do to help you through this?” Watch for signs of emotional distress and encourage them to connect with mental health resources if they seem depressed or anxious. (Our article talks about how to find a counselor.)

We know navigating college choices and college life during a crisis is difficult, but USF is here to support you and your student. Reach out to the Office of Admissions online to learn more about the COVID-19 precautions we take on campus. Stay safe and well!