It wasn’t long after my son got to college that I felt that primal urge to speed halfway across the state to rescue him. He was at the first home football game with some friends when early in the first quarter he began seeing those weird visual disturbances that signal an oncoming migraine. Now, he gets one every month or so, so he knows the signs and he’s got medicine that helps—which sadly he didn’t have with him at the game—no backpacks allowed. Still, he got himself home and slept it off and basically managed things fine. But then, just a couple days later, he felt another one coming on—he’s never had them that frequently, so I was more concerned. What should I do? Should I drive out there? But what could I do once I got there? In the end I suggested he go to his school’s student health center, which he did. The doctor adjusted his medicine and made a few other suggestions, and things are going better.
But I know this isn’t the last time my kid will ever have health problems far from home. You know, college kids live crammed together in those dorms, not getting enough sleep and sharing all kinds of germs. What can I do to support my kid—and his independence—when he’s sick at school? I did some reading, and here’s what I found:
- Teach them to keep themselves healthy. Before they move out, we need to make sure our kids know all about healthful eating, sufficient resting, frequent hand-washing, and scrupulous sneeze-covering. Now’s your chance to nag!
- Arm them with antibodies. Send your student off to college thoroughly vaccinated—her school will tell you what shots she needs.
- Equip them with a first aid kit. Keep it simple: a thermometer, acetaminophen or ibuprofen, some antibiotic cream and bandages. You might also toss in some liquid soap or hand sanitizer.
- Encourage them to get a flu shot. If her school doesn’t offer them, suggest that your student check the nearest pharmacy. I took advantage of my son’s recent Fall Break visit to have him vaccinated. Yes, it’s a hassle, but it’s less of a hassle than having the flu over exam week!
- In case of emergency. Suggest that your student program her school’s emergency numbers into her cell phone. It’s also wise to know the location of the nearest urgent care center or emergency room.
No matter how hard your kid tries to stay healthy, she’s likely to get sick at some point during her college years. What should she do? For the most part, she should do just what you’d tell her to do if she were home, of course!
- Shelter in place. If she’s not too sick, your student can just rest in her room and treat her symptoms with plentiful liquids and acetaminophen or cold medicine. It’s also a good idea for her to let her resident assistant know how she’s doing.
- Get some help. If she’s very sick or has diarrhea and/or vomiting that doesn’t resolve in a couple hours, suggest that your child head to her school’s student health center. But don’t rely on the school to tell you how she’s doing—privacy rules prohibit them from discussing your student’s health unless she gives express permission.
- Send a bulletin. If your student is sick enough to miss classes, remind her to notify her professors.
But what about us parents hovering at a distance — is there anything we can do? Sure!
- Be available. Let your student know you’re there for him if he needs you, but don’t rush in to rescue him (but see below).
- Be attentive. You might check in a little more often than usual via text or phone. But be sensitive to signals that your “a little more” is perhaps “a little too much” for your kid.
- Be thick-skinned. Taking care of our sick offspring is a strong instinct! It’s hard not to take it personally when said offspring wants to take care of herself. Still, try to take her cold (though perhaps feverish) shoulder for what it is—a sign of healthy independence.
- Be generous. That is, when it comes to mailing a care package and/or get-well card. Now’s your chance to indulge your nurturing impulses by packing that box full of tea, soup mix, tissues, favorite snacks, the works.
- Be wise. If you’re worried that your student is in real trouble, such as struggling with depression or other serious emotional or physical difficulties, it’s probably time to step in more directly. And of course, if you fear your student is in danger, call the school and/or the local police immediately.
More Than a Common Cold?
Recovering from a more serious or longer-term illness like mono in a dorm room can be rough. What then?
- Move in-house? Some student health centers are equipped with an infirmary where your student can rest apart from the ruckus in the dorm. Ask your student if this sounds like a good option.
- Come home? Some families live close enough to bring their student home for a short break to recuperate—sometimes a few days of home-grown TLC is all it takes.
- Keep the school in the loop. If you and your student determine that it’s best for him to come home for more than one or two days, make sure he notifies his professors, resident assistant, and academic advisor. Most professors will work with a student to accommodate a medical absence—if they know it’s happening.
I hate to think of my college kid suffering from an illness while he’s away from home, but I know it’s part of letting him grow into independence. What are some other strategies for supporting a sick kid from a distance?