By Jonathan Decker, Clinical Director, LMFT
With COVID-19 sending the nation into various stages of quarantine, a lot of families are having to evolve very fast, likely including yours. Spouses who worked outside the home now work within it. Children who left for school are now indoors and counting on their parents for instruction. The transition can be so difficult, trying to get work done while keeping in-house noise levels down, practicing vigilance to keep everyone healthy, ensuring that needed supplies and food stay in stock, and trying to help everyone get along so that the home doesn’t become a madhouse.
It’s a lot, and many families are struggling with the lack of space, privacy, and distance from one another. Tensions run high, tempers flare, and minor annoyances become major issues.
My wife has homeschooled our children for years, and I regularly do online therapy sessions from a secure home office. If I may say so with humility, our experiences have uniquely positioned us to help right now. Allow me to tell you some things we’ve learned. Others may see it differently, and I invite you to share your own emotional survival tips in the comments.
- Exercise and outside play are important. While COVID-19 is serious, there’s no reason to not go into your backyard or an open field. Just wash your hands immediately when you’re done. Keeping your family from becoming stir crazy is a very good thing. Plus sunlight and the accompanying Vitamin D are excellent for the immune system. Go for a walk. Shoot hoops. Toss the ball. Go for a hike. Just try not to touch things others may have touched recently and stay away from crowds. Getting outside will do wonders for diminishing conflict. If your kids don't want to play outside, try playing with them. Many times they'll change their tune.
- Make time for individual time. Part of the strain of occupying the same space with the same people, especially when children are involved, is the feeling that individuals are only part of the group and not seen for who they are. Making time to read, play, talk, or work one-on-one can do amazing things for morale and settle the unsettled hearts. If you can, schedule these into your week during a family council or couples’ council.
- Limit screen time. There is an understandable temptation to let video games, movies, YouTube, and devices babysit your children. Used sparingly, this can be a great thing but it can backfire in a major way, as studies have linked excessive screen time to moodiness, aggression, and feelings of sadness. Instead of giving your kids free reign, incentivize screen-time as something earned by finishing schoolwork and chores and by treating each other well. Limit its use to a specific amount of time per day.
- Create, carry out purposeful goals. Weekly family-councils (or one-on-ones with kids) will allow for making spiritual, educational, physical, and recreational goals and reporting on the same. Plan time for working on goals into your day so that everyone can enjoy “quiet time” and a sense of purpose. This is a great time for family members to retreat to separate corners of the house and enjoy alone time. It’s also a fine time to pick up new skills, catch up on family history and journaling, and become reacquainted with leisure reading. Take a relationship course. Learn how to cook, take up yoga, do home improvement projects. Challenge the drugery of quarantining by giving yourself a purpose.
- Establish a routine. Home life descends into chaos when family members don’t know what to expect. Knowing reading will occur, when schoolwork and chores will be done, when free time will take place can give them a sense of stability. Your routine doesn’t have to be rigid and inflexible, but it does need to be consistent.
- Distance physically, not socially. Make phone calls and video calls to loved ones. Enquire about friends or family in need and bring supplies or food to their doorstep. Write letters and emails.
- Practice good conflict resolution skills. Have a family meeting about what to do when tension gets high or people get angry. Ask family members what happens to their bodies when they get angry, so they can recognize that it’s time to calm down. Oftentimes family members report pounding hearts, tense muscles, hot faces, tight chests, gritted teeth or more. Have each family member create a “calm down” plan. You can help them with this but, depending on the age, as much of it should come from them as possible. Instruct them to practice identifying, once calm, the vulnerable emotion that was beneath their anger (fear, hurt, embarrassment, etc) and how to see the other person’s perspective, weaving these into their conversations once calm.
- Bond over family recreation and preparedness. While families can bond over video games and movies (the latter can be especially effective if paired with good discussion guides), do not underestimate the power of a good old-fashioned board game (or get-together game) to connect, enjoy each other’s company, and pass the time. Ditto for jigsaw puzzles. Cosmic Kids offers Star Wars, supehero, and Harry Potter-themed yoga for kids.
- Meditation and self-soothing. These are alarming times, with the news media stirring up even more fear and panic. When fear settles in, tensions run high. Learning to soothe yourselves through meditation can do a lot to relieve stress and bring the anxiety and irritability down. I recommend downloading and using an app called Insight Timer, which takes you and yours through soothing guided meditations, played through your phone as you lay and close your eyes. We use it when our kids are riled up or when we're trying to get them to sleep.
- Allow yourselves to be imperfect. The fact is that families are flawed because people are flawed. We’re all learning to bridle our passions, including our tempers. Be patient with one another and with yourself. Allow for imperfections to be learning opportunities (what are we going to do differently next time?) instead of cause for rebuke.
I hope this helps. If you and your family could use support right now, I'm available for online video sessions and complimentary 15 minute Discovery Calls. Please schedule with me here.