Family life, regardless of where you started, looks a lot different for almost everyone now than it did at the beginning of March, when the coronavirus threat was still something to be watched from afar. With school shut-downs, activities and social outlets closed, work schedules changed, intensified, or for many people, vanished – the day-to-day routine is likely not even close to what it used to be. This can be stressful for both parents and children, especially since so much of what is going on is out of our control. So how do parents “normalize” this time, and try to find comfort and strength in this world that suddenly may feel smaller, quieter, and more intensely family focused.
As a physician, I have been pleasantly surprised by telehealth video visits, where despite not having in-person connection with families (and the ability to be hands-on with the kids, that is hard for me!), I am able to glimpse through the window of my computer screen into their homes and personal lives. I have talked with many parents and children, and have heard frustration from those who feel trapped, fear for family members who are at higher risk if they were to contract coronavirus, teens who are missing friends (and sick of parents!), and parents who are yearning for a break from caring for young children. I have also heard amazing stories of creativity and adjustment. Everyone has a different situation, and a different response to the new situation.
It is important for parents to acknowledge that what we are experiencing is not normal, and to be kind to ourselves and each other as we struggle to adjust. We can get frustrated by the confusing assignment a teacher posted, or recognize that she probably is struggling to learn new technology, new teaching methods, and possibly juggling little ones at home between lesson planning. We can feel guilty for the endless hours of screen time our children are exposed to, or we can be grateful if we do have screens – or internet – a lifeline to the outside world. We can be hard on ourselves for not living up to our “regular world” standards of being productive, or fit, or organized; or we can congratulate ourselves for getting through another day while a highly contagious virus sweeps across the planet.
Some concrete suggestions might help you and your family redefine “normalcy” for this time. It might not look like the old normal, but the new normal can still provide comfort and hope.
Limit everyone’s exposure to the 24-hour news cycle feed. Stressful events trigger the sympathetic nervous system, or the “fight or flight” response. That’s a useful for immediate danger, like jumping away from a bus or running away from a fire. However if it’s constantly triggered, that leads to feelings of hopelessness, fatigue, poor sleep, and decreased ability to focus. Select programming that makes you laugh or offers a chance to discuss a non-COVID related topic with your children.
Breathe. And laugh. The parasympathetic nervous system controls the body’s relaxation mode, reducing blood pressure, slowing the heart rate, and allowing you to rest and recover. Even one slow deep breath can trigger this response. Laughter – even fake, forced laughter - intensifies the response. Try out different silly laughs with the kids. I dare you not to start laughing for real.
Allow kids to ask questions about COVID. Try to provide honest but reassuring answers. For example, children are rarely getting sick with the virus, so telling them this might ease their concerns for their own health. Let them know you are being very careful to avoid getting the virus. That will reassure them that you are doing your best to stay well.
Express gratitude, even if you are not feeling it. A study at Duke showed that if you write down (or say out loud) “3 good things” each night before bed leads to higher levels of morning serotonin, a hormone that is associated with feelings of happiness. Ask your children to name three good things before bed. Try to come up with 3 of your own, even if they are small. “We didn’t get coronavirus today” is certainly a reason to be grateful.
Self-care, however that looks right now. Sleep more. Go for walks, if that is possible. Wake up, shower, and change clothes, even if that means changing from “nighttime jammies” to “daytime jammies.” Care for yourself, and forgive yourself if it’s not all perfect.
The “new normal” is likely to be here with us for some time. We might see glimpses of the “old normal” and then find ourselves forced back to the “new normal” from time to time as the virus hides and then re-emerges. We will look forward to the time when we have a vaccine, so we can truly go back to life as we once knew it. But for now, be gentle with yourselves, with your children and with others as we all go through a global transition of life as we know it.