My College:
Health & Safety

How Do We Parent the Covid Generation?

David Tuttle

Over the winter holidays, I came down with a manageable case of COVID-19. While concerned for me, my college-aged daughter (home for the break) was more fixated on how my illness might impact her and her scheduled return to campus.

I found breakfast on a tray outside my quarantine space (out of love but mostly to keep me at bay). Long texts scolded me for my selfishness whenever I did venture out, though someone had to walk the dog. Generation Z loves to give feedback!

Being the parent of an emerging adult can be hard, not just because of the challenges they pose to us but more so because of the ones they face. It has become increasingly difficult in recent years as teens and college students deal with intensifying mental health issues. Gun violence and political upheaval have exacerbated the crisis. Add the twin threats of the pandemic and climate change — and now a new potentially global crisis as Russia attacks Ukraine — and this is a generation of young people on the brink.

Historical events shaped the experiences of many generations (WWII, the Kennedy assassination, 9/11 to name a few). Unquestionably, the current generation of students will one day be considered the Covid Generation. (This cohort is technically part of the aforementioned Gen Z, born 1997–2012, and they make up today’s traditional-aged college students.)

The pandemic has been tragic on global, national, local and deeply personal levels. People have died and continue to suffer. Everyone has been impacted in one way or another: worn a mask, had plans change, quarantined, lost work, experienced anxiety. We've watched as “normal” learning and milestones have been torn from our kids over a sustained period of time. I've dealt with these issues as the parent of several college students and as a student life administrator. For my daughter this past January, being able to control her return to campus (i.e., not having another experience ripped from her) was understandably a priority.

How will today’s challenges shape our kids’ psyches, personalities and relationships over time? Sociologists, psychologists, researchers and historians will study this and deliver appropriate answers one day. But we can’t wait that long. As parents, we want to ensure the happiness and success of our children to the best of our abilities. What can do to help them during these challenging times?

I spoke with Dr. Daniel Lopez, a Clinical Psychologist in San Antonio, and he offers a glimpse into what our students are dealing with.

Helplessness and Hopelessness

Dr. Lopez works a lot with Gen Z and he's been seeing the pandemic overwhelming young people in extreme ways. “It is a big challenge to not become helpless and hopeless.”

“Covid has changed everyone’s experience, younger people in particular,” says Dr. Lopez. “They are having real challenges, having events and activities postponed, seeing fewer opportunities as companies freeze or delay hiring for their particular skillsets.” Indeed, this generation has lost out on milestones, like graduations. And they've lost the privilege of entering college with unbridled optimism knowing that waves of Covid cases can send or keep them home.

What's more, Dr. Lopez observes, “The challenge around climate change and impact on their future is on their minds. Many [young people] come in and are concerned about what the future holds. It can make them feel unsteady.”

Normalcy and Trust

It strikes me that today's students, somewhat like those who grow up with an alcoholic parent, don’t really know what “normal” is. They've been forced to pivot, adapt and repeat.

Additionally, they've experienced an “erosion in trust” according to Dr. Lopez. Young people witnessing a lack of tangible action related to climate change and “the disruption in democracy” may find it difficult to trust those around them, those who are in positions of authority and decision-making.

Dr. Lopez also deals with those who are grieving the losses of loved ones to COVID-19 and these losses take on an added dimension. “Beyond loss, there is worry that Covid can infect and take the lives of anyone, anytime. And this reality has added a heightened vulnerability for many.”

“Establishing trust in oneself, having confidence can be quite difficult,” says Dr. Lopez. “To help those experiencing a crisis of confidence, we sometimes review their past experiences (evidence-based reasoning) to remind them of previous successes encountering and mastering challenges. This process often helps create more certainty and confidence moving forward.”

Dr. Lopez notes that the “sense of normalcy is disrupted and unpredictable.” He notes that clients wonder if “this is the new normal.”

Moving Forward

How does Dr. Lopez work to pull young people back from the abyss, and how can we do the same? “It is important to develop mindfulness skills, teaching people to stay present. People sometimes futurize and worry about things well beyond their control. This is often called negative prognostication, and it can immobilize individuals. It is very helpful to encourage a focus on what can be done, today.”

Dr. Lopez also works with clients on calming techniques. “Using visualization strategies, such as imagining a calm peaceful place, can help,” he says.  “We often develop and rehearse a script for when people start to feel anxious: Breathing, grounding, using their senses.”

What Can Parents Do?

The problems are global and enormous. What we can do is try to mitigate some of the emotional devastation by building trust and striving for normalcy.

  1. Nourish Relationships: “People look to their closest relationships and feel support there in very personal ways,” notes Dr. Lopez. As family members, striving for consistency, support, and yes, normalcy, can go a long way. Relationships with other young people is really important, too, says Dr. Lopez. “Younger people were already connecting via social media and gaming, and these activities have been of help to many in supporting them through isolation.”
  2. Reduce Stress: People in general are more vulnerable to their own emotions, says Dr. Lopez. “Because of collective stress, people are more short with their frustration – like we are seeing on airlines or in reports of road rage. These are symptoms of emotional stress.” Identifying ways to reduce stress, through mindfulness, exercise and health, can be important for day-to-day stability.
  3. Control What You Can Control: Where possible, identify areas where young people can have control. There can be small wins through involvement in social and political movements and larger successes through careers and leadership in government and business. And don'lt overlook the importance of being able to control elements within their own sphere: where (or whether) to go to college right now, the choice of academic major, how they decorate their dorm room or apartment. They can improve their diet, take up a new fitness routine, make a plan to learn something new and fun outside of school, make a volunteer commitment.
  4. Talk About It: Acknowledge the many challenges students are facing. They're thinking about their own futures and the collective and greater good. So, talk about these things with them. Parents and family members should share their own concerns and fears and validate that this is all very real.
  5. Lean on Professionals: This generation is more comfortable with counseling and therapy than those in the past. Encouraging young people to explore their feelings in depth with a licensed professional is really important.
  6. Offer Hope: And finally, try to offer hope. “Young people are wondering: Will I have to wear a mask off and on forever? Is this ever going to end?” says Dr. Lopez. Offering hope that things will get better and that we can survive may be the best thing we can offer.

For my student, who was packing to return to campus, being able to go back without delay provided consistency, normalcy and a little bit of joy. She and others in this generation have certainly earned that.

David Tuttle spent over 30 years in higher education in Residential Life and Student Affairs and has sent four children to college. He is the proprietor of a student and parent assistance service, PROsper Collegiate, LLC. Contact him at [email protected]
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