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Maintaining family wellbeing during the Covid-19 lockdown

Prof John Sharry, Parents Plus

With colleges, schools and childcare centres closed in most areas, the Covid-19 crises has instantly changed the lives of most families worldwide. Pushed tightly back into our family units without much outside contact, relationships have been put under pressure.  Stressed parents struggle to balance working and caring for children all day and bored children have to manage without normal social contacts and  school routines.  Not surprisingly there has been a big increase in family and relationship stress and child behaviour problems. Below are some tips for managing family relationships through this crisis

  1. Manage your own stress
  2. Attending to adult relationships in the family
  3. Talking to children about their worries
  4. Structuring the day/ Creating a family routine

First put on your own oxygen mask before you attend to your children

As a parent, the most important thing you can do for your own children is to first manage your own level of stress. The more you are coping and feeling positive the better you will be able to attend to and care for your children. Children need cared for parents who can care for them. The first step in helping your children and reducing family stress is take steps to ensure you are coping first. This is good for you, your children, your partner and the other adults in your family Learning to manage stress and to personally cope effectively are covered in another article here

Stress can have a negative impact on your personal relationships with your partner and the other adults in your family. When affected by worry or depression or stress, we can become much more irritable with those close to us or we can cut off and become unavailable. Being pushed together in family isolation can aggravate tensions and difficulties. If you are a separated parent you can have the added stress of negotiating with a parent outside your home or if you are a lone parent you could feel more isolated if you are cut off from your usual supportive adult relationships outside the home.

Take time to understand

Take time to understand what is going on between you and your partner or other adults in your family. Expect that relationships might be strained  and that you and others may become irritable and upset at times. Remember that with a bit of thoughtful understanding, stress does not have to drive you apart but instead can bring you together and deepen your understanding of each other. Rather than fighting each other over the crises, recognise that you are in this together and work at finding solutions.

Listen well

The most important communication skill is listening. Listening is the best way to stay connected with a close family member and a crucial first step to resolving conflict. When your partner is upset take time to first understand what is going on from their perspective. If they get snappy, rather than reacting try to pause and listen first. Give space and time for them to express their feelings and thoughts – ‘you sound upset, what is bothering you at the moment…tell me what is the matter’. This can take the sting out of stress and upset. Whether  you are parenting in the same home or as a separated couple, taking time to understand the other parent’s feelings and what is important to them is crucial to getting  on better and reaching agreements.

Communicate well 

Equally important is to communicate your own feelings and thoughts. Rather than being angry or passive aggressive, the goal is to find an assertive respectful way to communicate your feelings and state what you need.  Using ‘I’ statements is often a good way to do this ‘ I feel this when this happens’ or ‘I really need this to happen’ or ‘this is important to me’. Find your way of assertively and respectfully communicating that gets through to the other person.

Make agreements

Rather than just winning the argument or getting what you want, you need to find ways that you both get what you want. This is the only way to maintain and good relationships. The ideal is to find  ‘win-win’ solutions that work for everyone. And when this is not possible the goal is to make an agreement where burdens are shared and you both get something of what you want. Making and keeping agreements is the key to building trust in relationships.

Just as parents are understandably alarmed and worried about current crises so are their children and teenagers.  Rather than avoiding difficult conversations it isbetter to be proactive and to plan how and what you might talk to them.

Use child-centred language for young children

In talking to young children it is important to take time to explain the message using concrete child-centred language that they understand.  For example, to explain why your 4 year old can’t visit Nana during the crisis you might say ‘There is a virus, called Covid19, that makes old people very sick. Children can carry Covid19 but not know they have it. So we can’t visit Nana in case we give her the virus. The good news is that we can talk to her and see her on the phone. She misses you very much and loves when you show her pictures or when you read your books together over the phone at bedtime’

The key is to show children how they are helping others by their actions. You are showing how your daughter can protect Nana and also be kind to her by keeping in touch.

You can also use pictures or drawings to your children to explain how the virus spreads and importance of washing hands and social distancing. There are many children’s picture books just published online to explain all about the virus that you might be able to read together

Use adult explanations for teenagers

As your children become older and your explanations need to be more adult and scientific. Teenagers appreciate being taken  seriously and being treated like adults on the same level as their parents. Be proactive and find ways to raise the issues with your older children. It is always better that your children are talking to their parents rather than relying on unreliable sources such as social media or peers.  A useful strategy might be to watch the news together and to then debate and think through the issues with them. Alternatively, you can review some reliable health information on Internet together which looks at all the facts and the protective actions you can take –  this might be a good way to calmly go through the facts and to help you both think how best to respond.

Listen carefully

Make sure to listen carefully when your children raise worries and questions. If  your teenage daughter talks of exaggerated facts, respond calmly and ask her ‘ where did she hear that from?’ If your son worries about who might die due to the coronavirus, give him space to express his thoughts and feelings – listen to his underlying worries. While you can reassure him that so far no young children have died, this may make him worried that older people ( such as his parents) may be at risk. Acknowledging this worries and putting them in context of reliable information is the best approach. You want to encourage your children to talk to you and to keep communication open. You want to give them the message that you can handle their feelings and worries

Use a positive tone

Parents are often worried that difficult facts might scare children. In reality, it is how things are explained rather than the facts that scare children the most. Vague inconsistent and confusing answers from anxious parents make for anxious children. When you are talking to your children, think through what you want to say so you can be calm and clear about what is going in they have to do.

Explore positive actions

Empower your children and yourself by focusing on reasonable actions that you can take to keep them safe. This can include agreeing good hand washing routines and new ways of greeting people outside the home ( e.g. waving instead of hand shaking). If you have to stay at home for a period, involve them in preparing a list of what food you will need and what fun activities you can do at home. Remember taking safety actions does not have to be a morbid serious affair. You can make of game of learning how to wash hands properly seeing who can follow video instructions the best. Also, there are lots of funny videos online that describe new ways of greeting or keeping safe distances when shopping.

Each family now has to adjust to new pressured circumstances of trying to study, work confined in the same household without the usual organised social activities outside the home. Learning the structure the day and creating a new family routine is a way to make this more manageable.

Build the day around mealtimes

Build your daily routine around family mealtimes.  One silver lining in the crisis is the opportunity for families to have more healthy home cooked meals. Involve children as much as possible ( according to their ages) in planning, preparing, cooking and cleaning up after meals. The more tasks are shared, the more family bonding and shared pride there will be. With older children you can set up a weekly schedule for meals, alternating who is cooking/ washing up and ensuring everyone gets their favourite meal included

Set aside parent work times

Set aside spaces in the day when you can do your own thing while the children are doing their own thing ( eg homework or play). This might facilitate you doing work projects or leisure time. If your children are very young and don’t easily give you space, then you might alternate child minding with your partner throughout the day. If you are parenting alone, then this time might occur when the children are watching TV, napping or asleep in the evening o.

Through the course of the day, the goal is to alternate between time together and time apart. Creating individual space and time, while in the same house with others is the key to survival

Plan some play times

Rather than responding to your children’s request to play throughout the day, try to set aside couple of fun play times in the day when you can give them your full attention. This might be doing a craft together, or a family game in the evening or watching a family TV show or doing a video call to granny together. Set one or two interesting goals each week that you can look forward to, whether this is trying a new game, learning something, doing an online quiz with extended family and friends.

Relax about homework

Rather becoming obsessed with ‘home-schooling’ your children which can lead to increased pressure and battles, it is important to relax about homework.  While you might punctuate the day with one or two learning periods the when screens are turned off, it is better to set small achievable learning goals that the children are largely in charge of. Work closely with te school teacher and avail of what online school supports might be available.

Avoid being in the role of a strict teacher. Remember  young children learn most form you during fun and relaxed activities whether this is baking or cooking, spotting nature during a walk, playing quizzes, sowing seeds in the garden or doing  a craft together. Find something your children enjoy and make this the basis of home learning. Many schools will provide support on these creative learning opportunities.

Help children plan their activities

Help you children create their own routine and to alternate their activities throughout the day For example, in a given day they might alternate between 1) screen time by themselves 2) doing a play activity 3) reading a book 3) watch a TV programme with family 4) Playing in garden 5) playing music 6) doing a craft 7) going for family walk etc.

The key is to strike a balance between screens and other activities as well as time alone and time with the family.

Take the pressure off

Being cooped up in the same house already brings a lot of pressure. Reduce your expectations and don’t expect to be a super parent doing everything. Have a gentle start to day, set one or two goals, let your children watch a bit more TV, and focus on enjoyment and relaxation as much as you can.

See original article published on solutiontalk.ie