The pandemic went on longer than any of us could have guessed. Now that the world is beginning to open up again, many families are figuring out how to re-integrate back into society. What are the changes that are coming? What should their kids expect? How can parents prepare their kids when they are also feeling uncertain? What should families discuss as a team, and how can they solve problems together? Although no one can truly answer all of these questions for every family, two of our psychotherapists can offer several suggestions on managing family stress this summer.
Identify the internal and external stressors that need your attention.
When your family is feeling stressed and overwhelmed, it can be difficult to pin down and think about what exactly is happening. A helpful strategy is to think about stressors as internal versus external. Internal stressors involve family rules and dynamics, parenting style and child care responsibilities, the living situation, and the mental and physical health of each member. For example, many children and teenagers experienced anxiety and depression during the quarantine phase of the pandemic. On the other hand, external stressors involve things outside of the family that need to be managed, such as financial concerns, work schedules, school policies, social life, sociopolitical stress, and pandemic-related concerns. For example, many parents are struggling to adjust to working in the office again and needing to find childcare. Once you have identified which stressors are impacting your family, you can determine which ones need to be addressed immediately, and which ones are less of a priority.
Help your family understand the layers of the transition.
The transition from pandemic life to our new normal is not just one big transition. It’s actually many layers that are happening all at the same time. Helping your family understand this can help make it feel more manageable. There is the physical layer of going from staying at home to going back to work and/or school, the psychological layer of existing only with virtual connection to being able to have in-person connection again, and the relational layer of going from isolating at home to re-entering social life and expanding social bubbles. We are all transitioning in different ways, and each layer looks a little bit different.
Recognizing the different layers can help you anticipate and understand how they will look like for your family. Look to the past to see how your family members have reacted to these layers of transition before. For example, consider how your child transitioned from one classroom to another – did they have trouble with the space (physical layer), or the new teacher (psychological or relational layer)? These past clues will help you target potential problems. Then, have a discussion with your family to explore your present situation, and the changes that might be coming. Be open with your kids about the logistical changes that you know are coming, and about the uncertainty you have surrounding others. Although it can be confusing for kids not to know what’s coming, they will appreciate being kept informed.
Have these discussions regularly so that everyone will be able to stay on the same page. Give advance notice of any upcoming changes or transitions when you can, and help your kids be flexible when they experience challenges. Involving your kids in problem solving will give them a sense of agency while also helping them build resilience. At the same time, recognize that you and your partner may also struggle with different layers of transition, and helping each other through those challenges will model healthy behavior for your children.
Communicate with your partner and with your children.
It’s important to remember that communication is both verbal and non-verbal. It’s not just the words you say or how you say it, it’s also the emotions on your face and the gestures and stance in your body. When you are having a difficult conversation, try to pay attention to how you are presenting yourself. Children are going to be looking at your face, listening to your tone, and picking up your emotions in order to figure out how they should feel. Whether it’s with your children or with your partner, think about the non-verbal messages you’re sending with your body language.
When talking with your children, don’t be afraid to get creative. It can be difficult to explain what they’re going through when you’re also trying to make sure that you’re using age-appropriate language. Using tools like books, visuals, schedules, and calendars can help your children better understand transitions and new changes. Do your best to make sure all caregivers are on the same page so that you’re giving your children consistent information. One tip is to switch your language to be active, rather than passive. Saying “this is what we decided together” helps to give your children a sense of agency in the process.
When talking with your partner, recognize that your couple interaction might be changing as you and your partner shift work schedules and begin to expand your social life. While it’s exciting to be able to see more people, remember to continue to set aside time for each of you individually and for the two of you together as a couple. Make sure you both agree to be consistent with new routines and rules, particularly as they pertain to home arrangements and social life. You and your partner might not be equally comfortable with engaging with others right now – it’s okay to take things slow!
Use coping and processing strategies
Coping and processing strategies help you face obstacles and get around them, allowing you to grow despite frustrations and disappointments. Healthy coping and processing will help your children and your family as a whole be more resilient and confident. You can think of coping as a band-aid for a stressful moment – it helps you take care of yourself in the moment. If it was a small stressor, then that might be all you need. If it’s a bigger stressor, then you’ll want to use more targeted healing strategies, like processing.
It can take a little trial and error to find the coping strategies that work best for your family, but there are a number of different strategies that you can try. Deep breathing is a great coping skill for a quick reset of your body when you’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed. You can teach your children to practice deep breathing with imaginative play (ex: pretend you’re a dragon, take a deep breath, and blow out a big gust of fire). Your family can try fun exercise, sports, arts and crafts, or any hobby that holds interest and helps with grounding. Model for your children how to reach out for and accept social support. And for younger children, consider a transition object (a plush toy, blanket, safe piece of jewelry, etc.) that they can hold onto for reliable comfort during shifts in routine.
Processing strategies help your family recognize and understand what they’re feeling and what they’re experiencing. A great way to incorporate processing into your daily routine is a dinner table check-in. Our favorite questions to ask are: 1) What was your favorite thing you did today? 2) What was the hardest thing you did today? 3) What’s something you did today that you’re proud of?
It can take a little practice to incorporate these questions, but it should get you and your family thinking more about your feelings and experience. Be sure to model feeling and emotion words for your kids, since they might not be able to label what they’re feeling yet. You can also try writing/journaling or drawing your feelings or sharing music that reflects how you’re feeling. Feel free to be creative in your processing too. Use metaphors, like going through a tunnel, to understand changes and transitions. Use role-playing to discuss how other people might be feeling. You can even use games, like the Ungame, which has prompts for processing feelings.
Maintain Family Rituals and self care!
Beyond coping and processing, it can also be helpful to maintain family rituals and activities. Children, teenagers, and adults all thrive when there is routine and structure in everyday life. You can incorporate regular check-ins with your family to see how everyone is doing and whether anyone needs more support or space. You can schedule fun family time like movie nights, board game nights, or family breakfasts. You can also plan outdoor activities, like walking to the park or going hiking – getting “green time” has been shown to improve mood and reduce stress.
Finally, remember to practice your own self-care! When you’re constantly thinking about your family, it can be difficult to remember that you need to take care of yourself too. Give yourself time to worry only about you. Give yourself rewards and praise for staying on top of things, and give yourself a time-out or extra support when you need it. At the end of the day, taking care of yourself not only gives you the energy to keep up with all of your responsibilities, but also shows your children and your family how to practice healthy self-care.
If you have difficulties managing stress as a family or as parents, we have professionals that can help you and your family establish the necessary care to get through these tough times. Contact us today to talk to our therapists in California and New York to see how we can help.