Recently, therapist Cary Hamilton walked in on a conversation between her husband and her nine-year-old daughter. After weeks of quarantine, the pair had reached a conclusion: they were tired of each other. That’s when her husband shared a simple truth. “No one knows how to do this,” he told their child. “We don’t know what we’re doing right now or what we’re doing wrong. All we can do is talk about it and listen to each other.”
It was a timely reminder in a moment when families are under unprecedented levels of stress. Hamilton, the owner of Olympia Therapy, emphasizes the need to recognize underlying stressors during COVID-19 and provides tools to alleviate them for both parents and children.
One of the biggest challenges for parents under the Stay Home mandate is feeling like they need to do it all, she says. Working from home and trying to keep kids up to date with their schoolwork while maintaining a semblance of normalcy can be overwhelming. “They can always get caught up on schoolwork, we can’t do that with relationships” she says. “If you’re having power struggles over doing homework that are rupturing your relationship, it’s better to go play outside, be a tickle monster, or play a game. Focus on the relationship within the household.”
Equally important is understanding that the trauma of COVID-19’s impact on every aspect of daily life has everyone’s central nervous system in a state of increased arousal, which means we’re naturally more irritable and on edge. Add in the fact that we’re pent up in confined spaces together, flare-ups are bound to happen.
“We all have a baseline window of tolerance for handling everyday stuff,” says Hamilton. “Now that window has shrunk, for both parents and kids. It’s about being conscious and recognizing when you’re being reactive in a moment rather than responsive because your stress level is higher.”
Some Other Tips for Gamilies During Quarantine:
Recognize that we’re not in each other’s shoes. Although family members may live in the same house, their experiences may be dramatically different depending on their age and circumstances. “I can’t say to my daughter that I know how this feels for you,” says Hamilton. “I’ve never been nine and gone through this. We can only get feedback and provide support.”
Create a loose schedule with visual icons. Coming from the regulated routine of school life to completely unstructured time can actually create more stress for kids. Hamilton points out that when our bodies don’t know what to expect, they go into an even more heightened state of arousal. Creating a schedule with visual icons, i.e. a dinner plate for dinner, a kid doing jumping jacks for exercise, etc., helps everyone in the family get on the same page and pre-empts the dreaded question, “What do I do now?”
“When our brains are in an arousal state, reading is very difficult,” says Hamilton. “Having a visual schedule decreases stress by minimizing the power struggles about what they’ll be doing next.” The schedule doesn’t have to be followed to a T, she notes, but having one in place will allow everyone to relax some.
Allow time for free play. Within the loose schedule, free playtime is essential. It regulates the brain and decreases stress hormones. “The more we play, the better off we’re going to be as humans,” Hamilton explains. “If a child’s initial response is to say, ‘But that’s boring. I don’t know what to do,” that means they need it even more.” Some screen time is okay, given that it may be one of the few ways older kids can connect with friends, but a large segment of free play should be screen-free.
Allow teenagers to grieve. High school seniors, in particular, have had their lives and plans disrupted by COVID-19 and those plans may now be in doubt. Currently, they can’t be social, which is their natural tendency, and normal closure activities like graduation are on hold or severely modified. “They’re being really strong for all of us,” says Hamilton. “We need to allow them to get mad and to grieve because if they don’t express it, it’s going to leave a pocket of dark emotion inside them that’s going to be hugely detrimental to their futures.”
Last but perhaps most importantly, give yourself and others a bit of grace. If you need to take a day off, just do it says Hamilton. “It’s okay if you need to check out and watch Netflix for a day. Our brains are dealing with an immense amount of stress, and there’s no judgment on what you need to do to regulate yourself or get yourself through, as long as you’re not hurting someone else or yourself.”
When it comes to dealing with others, she recommends, including those in our own families, be kind. “We cannot predict how anyone else is managing this,” she says. “The best of our human capacity is to give kindness, regardless of whatever is happening.”
Read Olympia Therapy’s April 21 newsletter for more resources.