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How to Reduce Family Stress at a Time of Crisis

Wellness Family Travel
by Noelle Alejandra Salmi Mar 26, 2020

Times are tough, as we’re locked into our homes with family, navigating a reality that feels rather surreal. In addition to the anxiety each of us is feeling for the world at large — and many more for their livelihoods — some people are experiencing increased stress at home. We spoke with two experts on mental health, families, and relationships about how we can take care of our kids, our partners, and, importantly, ourselves.

Modeling for our kids

“The first thing to do as parents is to see how we can move from this more panicked place to a more healthy level of anxiety. If we think about our kids needing a lot from us right now, we can’t give it to our kids if we haven’t given it to ourselves,” says Dr. Susan Wilkens, a clinical psychologist in private practice in San Francisco who specializes in children and families.

A characteristic of excessive anxiety is the overestimation of risk and underestimation of one’s ability to cope with it. Wilkens asks us instead to recognize that, “This is going to be hard, and we’re going to be able to handle it,” and to communicate that message to our kids. We should also avoid catastrophic words like “always” and “never.”

While we can tell young ones that we don’t have answers to basic questions like when school will restart or whether a loved one will get sick, we can also reassure them that the family will be able to cope with whatever comes its way.

At the same time, we should still acknowledge our kids’ own concerns. “There’s an opportunity for parents to be more transparent, not in scary ways, but in compassionate ways, as in, ‘Yeah I know this is scary. This is scary for all of us,’” says Wilkens. “It’s reassuring to them that they’re human, there’s not something wrong with them, that they’re having such big emotions.”

Reaching agreements with partners

Tensions can also arise when partners are unsure of how to cope with the virus itself. One adult in the household may feel an ultra-hygienic approach is merited, but their partner may be less supportive.

Kristen Donato, a family therapist in the San Francisco Bay Area, says many couples have come to her with that concern, including a husband who questioned, “‘My wife says I can’t kiss her. Why can’t I kiss my wife?”

Adding to the challenge, says Donato, is the lack of data about coronavirus. No one really knows how much caution is too much. Under normal circumstances, when it comes to household habits — like, say, dirty kitchen dishes — Donato tells couples, “There is no such thing as a standard. Everything is a negotiation.”

With those negotiations, Donato says you can take turns, flip a coin, or look for whom making a sacrifice is easier. The final approach is to consider for whom the choice is a dealbreaker, asking, “For somebody, is it so deeply tied to that person’s values that that has to trump everything?” This last option may come into play more often during the pandemic.

“If someone really has anxiety, and they’re a germaphobe, and they’re losing sleep at night, I say we do the negotiation based on trying to help that person — given that they’re really isn’t a good standard, there’s no medically prescribed standard for how we’re supposed to really be,” recommends Donato.

Physical space

Carving out space within a household under shelter-in-place regulations can also be a challenge. While kids may have bedrooms to retreat to for online classes (or other educational websites if classes have been canceled altogether), and one parent may even have a home office, the other parent may find there’s no private space left for them. And even then, this luxury of space is the rarity.

Wilkens says that for the stay-at-home parent, or the parent who worked from home but whose child was at school during much of the day, it can feel like “their space has been invaded. Their space…is now a free for all.”

Donato agrees, calling on us to feel compassion for people who have to hole up in confined quarters. She recommends creating a space of your own, if possible. “I just carved out the foot of my bedroom and that’s my space, but at least it’s mine. So if you can isolate a corner of the dining room table,” you should, says Donato.

Donato also thinks it’s important for family members to agree on when they are going to come together. She proposes having “a family meeting to agree upon when we want to be in each others’ space and when we want our separate spaces.” For her own family, Donato says, “We agreed we want to gather for lunch and dinner, but we made it a family choice.”

Flexibility and coming together

Sitting down as a family for meals is part of the process of opting between being flexible and sticking to a routine. On the one hand, Wilkens suggests we relax about things like a messy pile in the house but recognizes the comfort routine can give, especially when we’re living in close quarters.

“There’s an opportunity for us to be coping by being flexible while also not throwing out the importance of routine and structure, and holding some family expectations. Because that’s how a team works together. The team is still meeting, the team is still having lunch together,” says Wilkens.

It may be tempting to think that with the whole family under one roof for long stretches of time, it isn’t necessary to consciously come together — but Wilkens cautions against that thinking. “With the online school, with parents potentially working online, there’s a lot of separateness. And that separateness, in the microcosm of your home, is happening in a world where we’re being asked to be separate,” she notes.

Wilkens says it’s important to stick to rituals like dinner together and to check in as a family, perhaps at the end of the day.

Add playfulness and avoid the news

Moreover, when you do come together as a family, use that time to reduce stress. Where possible, Wilkens recommends trying to inject a little playfulness into your home. She says she has balls all over the house, which she and her kids have been throwing around.

Donato recommends puzzles and board games as a way for the family members to focus on something other than the pandemic. Even if the game being proposed is not your favorite, go ahead and play it, she urges.

The flip side of seeking playfulness is limiting your exposure to the unsettling news. “If you’re exposing yourself, it’s going to trigger your anxiety. There’s no doubt about that,” says Donato. “You have to limit your exposure.”

Wilkens has the same message. While it may feel like we need to stay informed, Wilkens says, “People need to understand you can get post-traumatic stress from checking the news all day long. That will impact your nervous system seriously.”

Wilkens says she herself avoids too much news, noting, “I check things once a day or I ask my husband, “What do I need to know?’”

Paying attention to your body

Both Wilkens and Donato say a central step in reducing stress at home is self-care, which starts with our own bodies. While being nervous nowadays is to be expected, if we notice that our heart rate is up, that we are speaking quickly, that may agitate the very kids who need our reassurance.

We need to ask ourselves, “What can I control here?” says Wilkens.

Donato agrees that our body will tell us if we are overly stressed: “If you can feel the tension in your body and it’s a constant rate of hyper-arousal. If you’re just noticing that you’re on edge often, that’s the sign. Your body does keep the score.”

Donato recommends meditation to try and restore a sense of calm. While she likes Headspace and Waking Up as two meditation apps, she also appreciates The Mindful Movement for offering 10- or 15-minute meditations on topics like gratitude or sleep. She suggests dedicating even a few moments to meditation.

Wilkens also feels that if you already have a meditation practice in place, you should stick to it — regardless of how occupied you may now find yourself at home. To parents who say they don’t have time for meditation or self-care, Wilkens says, “I’d say it’s the opposite.”

Yet Wilkens adds, “If you’ve never meditated before, this is a really hard time to sit down and do that, because you’re going to think, ‘What’s wrong with me? This can’t be right. I don’t feel calm.’” With the stress of the pandemic, Wilkens says, “I like letting go of the idea of calm. We’re probably not going to feel calm for a while.”

Connecting with nature and others

Instead Wilkens calls for mood-boosting. She asks us to consider the things that naturally make us feel better. She says, “Anything you know about yourself, whether it’s knitting, whether it’s running…I can’t stress how powerful movement can be right now, especially if you can be outdoors.”

Wilkens says being outdoors is a “natural antidepressant” that can be “healing,” adding that when you are outside and your attention turns to the natural world, “all of that internal focus, which is the problem with anxiety, shifts outward and now you are out of your head.”

Even if you aren’t allowed to go outdoors, or nature isn’t a short walk away, you can also get out of your head by connecting with others, Donato reminds us.

“Pick up the phone. Start calling friends and having a phone date,” says Donato. “Be the change you want in the world. So if you’re seeking connection, then you create a Zoom group, and assume whatever it is you need, everybody else needs it too.”

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