Updated: Feb 17
Is it my imagination or are more families taking walks lately? On a recent stroll with my own family, I was struck by the number of people out and about, walking and on bikes and scooters, (but sadly, noticeably absent from the playgrounds). I couldn’t help wonder where these folk would usually be? At cinemas, theme parks, cafes, sporting events? Out shopping? Eating out or making meals at home? Undertaking the weekly washing and ironing ritual to prepare for their upcoming working week?
As I continued walking and looking, I became more aware of the vast assortment of dwellings in our neighbourhood. Had I not noticed this previously or had it simply not been that important? I spotted lavish, two-storey mansions and low set, quaint cottages. I noticed large unit blocks and townhouses crammed into compact places. I saw outdoor spaces ranging from meticulously, manicured lawns, lovingly tended gardens to overgrown, toy-strewn yards. I noticed tradie vehicles numbering more than seemed usual and driveways jammed packed with cars (many belonging to P platers), indicating people at home who would normally have been out.
These observations caused me to consider the impact Covid-19 is having on the lives of the people inside these homes. Inside each different home, there is a unique family trying to navigate this uncertain time, and for some a downright stressful and scary time.
Each individual’s experience of being in isolation at home must surely be as varied as the homes themselves.
We all cope differently with stress and face our own challenges depending on our individual circumstances. However, there are also certain human traits that we share, like the desire for connection with one another and drawing comfort from having a safe space and people with whom we experience a genuine sense of love and belonging. When the outside world feels so unsettling, we crave this stability even more.
So how can we create harmonious, connected family environments during this unprecedented and worrying period in our lives? Whilst harmony may sound like a tall order, (challenging at the best of times and impossible during an isolation that none of us signed up for), there are in fact plenty of things we can do to make the most of this time, or at the very least, help it become a calmer experience.
Listening. It doesn’t matter whether it is your child, your partner or a friend at the end of the phone, everyone appreciates being heard. Not just nodded at or given a superficial ‘ah-ha’, but truly heard. Taking some time out to listen to our family members’ stories, ideas and even complaints, goes a long way towards strengthening communication and building closer relationships.
Listening to our children can be particularly important and also beneficial. The more children feel heard, the more they get their emotional cups filled and when their cups are full, they tend to be more cooperative. That may include being more willing to amuse themselves when parents are busy, getting along more cheerfully with siblings or helping out around the house.
Listening skills go further than just being attentive to one another though. Actively listening involves firstly hearing what the other person has to say and secondly, reflecting back to them in a genuine and empathetic manner our understanding of what they’ve just shared. Please allow me to share a personal example.
Recently, my daughter dramatically and emotionally expressed to me (imagine elaborate hand gestures and facial expressions to match) that if she has to be schooled from home next term that her life may well be over because this year she has got the best teacher she’s ever had, and furthermore that if the play in which she has just been given a main part were to be cancelled that her life would then indeed most definitely be over! I had a choice of how to respond.
An eye roll may have felt entirely fitting, but I doubt that would have left her feeling heard, let alone understood.
I can’t control the outcome of whether schools will open next term any more than she can, but how I respond to her disappointment will make a huge difference to how she processes the experience.
So in a similarly gob smacked tone to hers, I said something like, “I know! You’ve just got this amazing teacher and a fantastic role in the play. You’re having such a cracker of a year that the idea of being at home next term seems devastating for you.” (As a little aside, she went on to tell me that she wasn’t upset about being at home, but that she would be really upset about missing out on the super teacher and the production. She was able to clarify what the issue was which is actually pretty effective communication).
When adults are watching an unending stream of news reports detailing rising death tolls due to a virus without a vaccine, have lost our employment and are worried about our aging father falling ill, having a term off school may seem like a minor concern, or an out of proportion, over-the-top whinge. But for a 10 year old girl, this is her reality. This is her experience of the Coronavirus impacting on her world. If I had dismissed or trivialised her feelings with an off hand comment, she would have been left feeling like her mother had no clue how she was feeling and would likely feel increasingly isolated and disconnected from the very person who is meant to get her most of all.
There are many people, not just children, feeling anxious right now with new rules and rapidly changing circumstances that don’t make much sense to them. Reminding ourselves to stand in their shoes and see the situation from another’s vantage point is helpful when we feel tempted to gloss over the concerns of others. These moments are opportunities for people to build stronger relationships and parents to grow more connected with their children.
Non-blameful language. With family members in the same space for extended periods of time, it is inevitable that we are going to get on one another’s nerves from time to time. And the smaller the space and the bigger the personalities, the more regularly it is likely to happen. When individuals have differing needs and wants there are bound to be a clashes, but this doesn’t mean disagreements have to escalate into full-blown arguments. If we can address the problem without blame or labeling the other person, then we have a much better chance of being heard (see above for how important that is!), receiving a reasonable response and making headway towards a resolution.
In the previous example of my daughter’s concerns over school not returning to normal, there would have been so many ineffective responses I could have made.
For example, imagine if I had used a judgmental and blameful response such as, “Stop complaining! You are always so dramatic about everything!”
Or I could have rationalised her situation with, “At least you have a nice home to be homeschooled from and a Mum who can be at home with you. Some children are in small apartments or their parents have to work.”
Even reassuring her by saying, “Well, hopefully it will be over soon and the play will go ahead.” Though on the surface this seems kinder, it can be a subtle message communicating to her that she shouldn’t be feeling the way she ‘s feeling. This denies her the space to be frustrated and worried about what might happen.
All of these responses would have been hurtful. All would have been damaging to our relationship. Stating what the problem is without blaming the other person lowers reactivity and defensiveness. The bonuses are keeping the lines of communication open and increased connection with one another.
I’m not suggesting that we don’t need to talk about the possibilities and problems with our children, or that we shouldn’t speak with them about being grateful for what they have and even to help them realise that other people have different perspectives and may be worse off then they are. I am simply saying that having those conversations at the height of a child’s upset will not help them to calm down, learn to identify their feeling or understand the situation any better.
Kinds of time. Dr. Thomas Gordon, who developed Parent Effectiveness Training, identified three important kinds of time that we all need. They are activity time, one-to-one time and alone time. In our current climate of close proximity with our families, an awareness of these kinds of time seems more relevant than ever. Even before elaborating on these kinds of time, you will probably already guess that with differing personalities and temperaments, the amounts of these kinds of time we each need varies greatly.
For example, my own family consists of 2 introverts and 2 extroverts. My 13-year-old son would quite happily remain in his reading nook for days on end with short jaunts to the refrigerator and brief appearances at the dinner table, (and a dose of screen time here and there to break up the hours of reading). My 10-year-old daughter on the other hand has an exhaustive list of craft projects on the go, with an equally long trail of messes being left in her wake. As one of the extroverts, she craves far more one-to-one time, family and activity time than me, (who in all honesty would be quite happy with the life of my teenager). With my husband holed up in the home office, it often falls to me to become my daughter’s entertainer, companion and partner in artistic creations. By the end of the day I can easily be left mentally and emotionally exhausted. As I type this she keeps popping in to ask when I’ll be finished. I can barely finish a thought, let alone a blog!
Being aware of the different kinds of time and each family members unique needs can help us be more tolerant of one another’s differing needs.
1. Activity time – Activity time looks different in every family. It may be everyone doing the same thing like playing a board gamess or sharing a meal together. It also might be one person cooking dinner, another helping set the table, another drawing in an activity book at the kitchen counter and someone else reading the news and sharing little tidbits that leads to a family discussion.
For each family this time feels different, almost as though it has a personality of its own. It may be shaped by the music we listen to, whether Netflix is on in the background, the typical volume, pace, and ambiance that ensures. Essentially, it is the family dynamic. Think about what you enjoy doing together. If it normally involves adventures or hitting the game arcades, then you might have to get creative and find some fun, energetic stuff to do at home instead. (Have you seen the sock game where you have to knock drink bottles over with a ball in a sock attached to your head, no arms or feet allowed? Very funny!) Or if you enjoy good food and life usually revolves around restaurants and entertaining, then socialising may need to be moved online, taking advantage of apps such as Houseparty.
Think about how you are when you’re together. Is there good-natured family banter or more serious discussion and debate? Sometimes it helps to consider how we create and spend family time together and of course, how we can adapt to changing circumstances and experiences. There is no right or wrong way to be as a family as long as everyone feels accepted and knows that they belong, that they have a place. As parents we have a key role in shaping family and activity time. As leader of the household we often set the tone for family. (Refer to non-blameful language for example)
2. One-to-one time – each family member has a relationship with each other family member. This includes but is not limited to each parent with each child, the parents with one another, the one-to-one time siblings spend with one another, blended and extended family relationships and particularly as children become older, their time with friends. As a parent it is important to build individual closeness and connection with each of your children, yet the ways to do this are many and varied, again depending largely on individual personalities. I return again to my own children. The one who craves social connection willingly joins me on a morning walk just so she can chat to me for a full hour uninterrupted. (Farewell Audible, I’ll miss you!) My introverted teenager is no less affectionate but he won’t necessarily seek me out. In order to create connection with him I need to be a bit more creative and connect in a way that is meaningful for him. Giving my thumbs a work out on Mario Smash Bros. is bound to do the trick.
3. Alone time – We all need time alone. Time to recharge. Time to think our thoughts. Time to read and unwind. Or write our blogs. It is just that some of us need more of this kind of time than others. Sometimes conflict arises when individual needs clash or impact on other family member’s ability to meet their own needs. I guess it boils down to being accepting, respectful and at times assertive and clear in our communication with one another. Being self-aware in regard to our own needs, as well as mindful of the needs of other family members goes a long way towards remaining respectful and deepening our connection with one another.
All families are imperfect. Yet I truly believe that we are all doing the very best we can in our own individual ways and situations and despite the current uncertain times, which present even more challenges than normal, I believe we will continue to do the best we can.
This article has also been published by The Effectiveness Training Institute of Australia. If you are interested in finding out more about Parent Effectiveness Training courses please get in touch with me or check out www.etia.org to find out more about courses in your area.