The COVID-19 pandemic represents an unprecedented source of stress for today’s college students. In addition to the physical health threat COVID-19 poses to students and their loved ones, the psychological impact of the pandemic has been profound, with stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms increasing globally. Research suggests the psychological toll may be especially high for college-aged young adults. Social support, particularly from family members, has been identified as a protective factor against COVID-19-related mental health issues. Examples of social support could include giving someone comfort, advice, or a listening ear when they are dealing with life challenges or distress.
Many college students in Pennsylvania and elsewhere are taking classes remotely while living at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. These students may look to parents as readily-available sources of social support. However, the pandemic presents challenges that may make it more difficult for students to seek and receive adequate social support at a time when they need it most. Issues such as physical isolation from peers, distance from campus support resources, and health-related and financial stress among would-be supporters such as parents may leave students with fewer opportunities to receive the support they need.
How can Relational Turbulence Theory help us understand this dynamic?
Relational Turbulence Theory (or “RTT”) can help shed light on challenges students may encounter when living with, and seeking support from, parents during the pandemic. According to RTT, periods of transition in a close relationship (such as marriage, birth of a child, the transition to college, or a pandemic) can provoke uncertainty about the nature of the relationship. Relational uncertainty refers to doubts someone may feel about their involvement in the relationship (e.g, “How close do I want to be to my dad?”), about their counterpart’s involvement (e.g., “How much does my mom really care about me?”), or about the relationship as a unit (e.g., “How are we supposed to relate now that I’m back home from college?”). Additionally, during transitions partners can struggle to learn new routines, and may inadvertently interfere with each others’ daily plans. When relational uncertainty and interference spike in a relationship, partners often experience more negative emotions and communication with each other. Over time, this can lead to “relational turbulence,” which is an overall sense that the relationship is chaotic and unstable. Turbulence is not exclusive to romantic relationships, but often occurs between college students and their parents as families figure out the “new normal” post-high school.
What did we learn from a survey of college students?
Communication researchers have recently applied RTT to understand the social support process. Typically, people who are grappling with relational uncertainty, interference from partners, and a sense of turbulence perceive their relational partners as less supportive. Because uncertainty, interference, and turbulence can make it harder to communicate effectively and to interpret others’ messages accurately, it made sense to us that college students dealing with these factors might struggle to seek and receive social support from their parents.
To better understand these possibilities, we surveyed 733 U.S. college students between June 15-July 2, 2020. Participants were all 18 or older, enrolled in a college or university during Spring 2020, and living at home with at least one parent at the time of the survey. Students were recruited by Qualtrics, an online survey and sampling company. The sample was racially diverse, and included students attending a variety of college and university types (i.e., public and private, two-year and four-year, ranging from fewer than 1000 students to over 50,000 students).
The results of our study suggested a communication sequence that had consequences for students’ mental health. When students reported greater uncertainty about their relationship with a parent, perceived the parent as interfering with their daily goals, and experienced their relationship with the parent as turbulent, they sought less social support from their parent. In turn, as students sought less support, they perceived their parents as less supportive. When students sought and received less support, they reported increased stress, anxiety, and depression.
What does this mean for college students’ mental well-being?
This suggests college students and their parents (and likely, other family members) all have a role to play in maintaining students’ mental well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic. First, it is important for students to seek support when they need it. According to the notion of support activation, the first step in the social support process begins when individuals in need communicate to others their need for support. One’s need for support can be signaled verbally or nonverbally, but research suggests people are most likely to receive the support they need when they verbally and directly describe their problems and the type of support they most need. Although it can feel face-threatening to seek social support, perhaps especially when grappling with relational uncertainty, alerting others to your need for support is critical to receiving the support you need. And of course, if you are experiencing significant psychological distress, you should avail yourself of your university’s psychological support resources (such as Penn State’s virtual Counseling and Psychological Services).
Second, parents of college students should be aware of the fact that their children may need extra support during this time. Although emerging adulthood (the life stage for most traditionally-aged undergraduates) is typically a time of asserting independence from parents and negotiating new family roles and communication norms, during stressful times such as the COVID-19 pandemic, parents should not assume children no longer desire their support. Don’t dismiss or belittle your child’s perspective or feelings. Listen actively and empathetically. Offer advice in a way that boosts their confidence in their ability to weather the storm, rather than simply telling them what to do. Asking your child to elaborate on his or her feelings, and providing extra comfort during periods of stress, can help him or her cope with negative emotions. Doing so can help college students navigate the pandemic with more positive mental health. Furthermore, talk with your child about how they are handling the relational transitions COVID-19 may have introduced to their relationship with you and other family members. Although it may feel awkward, openly talking about the state of your relationship with your child can help both of you reduce relational uncertainty. Openly communicating with students about each of your daily goals and plans, and brainstorming ways to better coordinate your actions so that you don’t interfere with each other’s routines, can help reduce negative emotions and promote more positive communication.
Worley, T. R., & Mucci-Ferris, M. College students’ mental well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic: The role of relational turbulence and social support processes in relationships with parents.