Every year I meet with students who are exhausted, frustrated, angry, and suffering because they are taking care of another student. While we encourage students to engage in up-stander behavior, students should not feel they are responsible for the ongoing health and well-being of another student. Of course, we want students to look out for each other and help each other avoid dangerous situations; but taking 24/7 shifts to be with another student indefinitely, feeling the need to use their cell phone to track another student’s location, frequently leaving class to respond to another student’s emergency, regularly staying up all night or missing study time to care for another student, and regularly checking in with another student via text or other means to be sure the other student is ok, are unhealthy behaviors.
As educators, many of us also have caretaking tendencies. There is so much need in the world, it is tempting to give our time, energy, and expertise to the point of exhaustion. I often draw on my own experiences when helping students learn to establish boundaries. For some caretaking students, this is their first exposure to creating boundaries.
These are some tips I share with students who are struggling to care for their friends and have healthy boundaries.
- Set limits – Many students I meet with are uncomfortable setting limits. They tell me, “I can’t tell her no.” “I have to be available.” I give them examples of what limits sound like, and ask them if they think they would be able to say these things to their friend. For example, “I have to study tonight and will be turning my phone off from 5 p.m.-10 p.m.” or “If you call me and tell me you are going to harm yourself, I will call campus police because I care about you and don’t want you to hurt yourself.” I also remind students that when they set limits, they need to follow through. And, I reassure students that limits can be set in a loving and compassionate way. For example, “I really care about you and am concerned, but I’m not a trained professional. And, if you feel like harming yourself, you need to call the Hotline.”
- Identify referrals and resources – Students are often concerned that if they aren’t available, their friend will be left alone and without help. I help students identify other resources and sources of support they can provide so they don’t feel solely responsible for another student. I encourage students to tell their friend to call the Hotline, a parent or family member, or 911 if their friend needs help.
- Be aware of your feelings – Students who are caretaking often feel angry and resentful. Sometimes they are ashamed of their anger and express that it feels selfish to feel angry when their friend needs them. However, anger can be an important signal that our boundaries are being violated. I encourage students to notice when they feel angry, resentful, or uncomfortable, and consider whether that might be a time to establish a boundary.
- Be direct – It can be challenging for some students to be direct, especially students who are raised in collectivistic or high-context cultures. In collectivistic cultures, communication tends to be indirect and a high value is placed on avoiding conflict. When the situation involves two students from different cultural backgrounds, it can be important to talk about communication styles and help them practice being direct.
- Focus on your purpose – I remind students that they are attending university for a purpose. By ignoring their own need to study, sleep, exercise, and attend class, they are making choices which take them away from their purpose.
- Identify what is in your control – I encourage students to make a list of what is within their control – when they eat, sleep, study; how often they check their phone; who they spend time with; whether or not they go to class. Then, I ask them to make a list of what is beyond their control – whether their friend takes his/her medication; if their friend decides to drink alcohol or take drugs; whether their friend gets angry; ultimately, other people’s choices. Finally, I encourage students to focus on the things within their control and let go of those things which are beyond their control.
- Self-care – When students are caretaking, they tend to neglect caring for themselves. This can take different forms – giving up sleep, study time, exercise. It is critical that caretakers realize they must take care of themselves before they can take care of others. Taking care of another person with a mental health issue can also lead the caretaker to experience psychological distress as well. I encourage students to maintain regular exercise routines, eat healthy, schedule study time, and try relaxation techniques like meditation and mindfulness to remain healthy and academically successful.
- Name your guilt – This is one of the hardest parts of setting boundaries. There is usually a fear that by not being available, not checking in, and/or not responding, one is being selfish or even takes the risk of not being there to prevent a tragedy. This is a valid concern, and it deserves acknowledgement. There is a real reason why the student is concerned about his/her friend. However, guilt should not prevent students from focusing on their own needs, self-care, and purpose, and I try to help students find the balance between caring for themselves and others.
- Seek counseling – I often refer students to Counseling Services. I explain it can be helpful to have someone to talk to who doesn’t have an agenda. While a student might have friends and family who can be supportive, a counselor can help a student determine what is in the student’s best interest, help the student better understand the relationship, and help the student set healthy boundaries. Sometimes I meet students who are enmeshed. They are involved in a relationship or friendship where boundaries seem impossible. It is especially important in these situations that students have opportunities to speak to a licensed professional therapist.
These conversations can be difficult. Sometimes students get angry with me or express that they simply cannot establish boundaries. But many times, students come back and thank me for helping them. Being a caretaker is often unsustainable, and inevitably a student either establishes boundaries or has to give up being a caretaker due to exhaustion or frustration.