Thriving and Surviving as a Family

Top 5 Tips (During C-19 and Isolation)

The Covid-19 pandemic has exploded – our landscapes, our normal family life and our sense of safety has been blown apart. However, your family is still your family. We want to help you think about how to anchor yourself in this storm and navigate the new territory to ensure you don’t just survive but eventually you might also be able to thrive. In trauma psychology this is known as Post Traumatic Growth. Here are five suggestions for helping you along this process.

1. Allow the feelings of grief and loss

Humans are social creatures; connecting is what we are designed to do. Social isolation comes with considerable loss. Everyone in your family is likely to have lost something or someone very important to them such as school, team sports, contact with friends and family, or employment. Whilst this is likely to be a temporary loss for most there is no certainty around when and how these aspects of life will return. For some these losses might be permanent. Grief that surrounds each and every loss is real and needs to be heard. It is really hard for us to watch those we love struggle and feel sad, which is why we might try to jolly a family member out of their grief with well-meaning words… “it isn’t that bad because you have …”. But if you think about how loss has felt for you in the past, these comments can feel unhelpful and leave you feeling more alone and angry. Families can help each other out by making time to listen. Remember, your losses might be different to those of your teenage daughter, five-year-old son, middle-aged mum or your partner. But all of you are going through the same process of grief and loss. Read more on the grief cycle and Coronavirus.

2. Navigate by identifying and holding your most important individual and family values

When everything else is stripped away what are the things that matter the most for you? When all this is over what do you want your story to be of the experience? What do you not want for yourself and your family? Values are different from goals; values are much more about what is important along the way as opposed to the end goal. Coronavirus and isolation will pass, we all just want to get through in one piece. But what kind of experience do you want for you and your family? Appreciate that there may be differences between family members on this: staying active and feeling strong may be important to one; feeling connected with each other more important to another; and enjoying the individual space to develop a skill important to someone else. Be prepared to let go of things that are not in your top three values – you simply won’t have time to do everything in this crisis.

3. Balance structure with flexibility

Lots of experts are telling us that providing a high level of structure for your family during this crisis is a good thing. For some this is good advice, but not for all all of the time. Think about the benefits and costs of the structure? What job is it doing for the family and does it fit with your family values? Sometimes we impose structure to give us a sense of control when we feel scared. Sometimes we feel we need to keep up with the amazing timetables and schedules we see on social media.

Certainly, many people are likely to benefit from some structure such as having meals together and at a similar time, having agreed times when you will work and when you will be free etc. It can also be helpful to think as a family about everyone’s roles, interests and possible activities. But make space for things going off-piste sometimes. Space to be emotionally there for each other at times is crucial right now.  Sometimes we just won’t feel able to concentrate on work and may need more breaks. The parent whose work normally takes priority may need to allow space in the working day to take over as the primary caregiver for a while. I wonder if there was more space and flexibility – maybe let a child get bored or give yourself some time just to potter, chat idly or have a cry – what would emerge? Would you discover someone had a need, interest, talent or wish you hadn’t noticed before? Would relationships change a little? What might feel good to do differently to your family norm?

4. Go slow and take care

We could be in this for a while. Takes things slowly – it’s a marathon and not a sprint and all that… Take care of yourself – what will you need to do to enable you to keep going, to be there physically and emotionally available for your partner and/or children and to keep that flexibility that is so important in these uncertain times?  What little interests or habits can be planted together and given space to take root and grow slowly? Where is the space for you all as individuals, and the space for you as a couple, as a friend?

5. Manage your threat brain

It is entirely normal and appropriate for your brain and system to go into defensive/alarm mode to protect from perceived or anticipated threat. Find out more about how your amazing brain works instinctively to protect you here Not being able to work, access the provisions we need or see the people that we love together with the threat of very serious illness and death is of course going to activate your anxiety. Our threat brains would not be terribly well designed if this did not create some sort of alarm in our system. However, we cannot continue in a state of alarm; that is just way too taxing on our physical and mental system.  When in threat mode our brains literally lose the ability to think clearly, leading to potentially poor decision-making and can make us pretty difficult to be around e.g.  withdrawing from everyone or biting the head of someone who is on your side.

Fortunately, we can use conscious control to soothe our threat brains back into a sense of security relatively easily. Something as simple as taking a deep breath into the bottom of your tummy and slowly exhaling can our soothe our system and allow us to make a more choiceful response.  Include lots of safety cues or ‘anchors’ in your daily life: get outside and feel the sunshine; have nice smells and things around that relax you; do things you know you are good at; use cuddles and touch; positive humour (not sarcasm!); perhaps routine; hear the voices and see the faces on video calls of those you love.  And minimise danger cues; for instance it’s easy to be obsessed with frightening media reports as a way of searching for the answer to give us a sense of control, but it can serve the opposite – enhancing your sense of uncertainty and threat.  Get and get some control over things that are within your control such as sorting out financial plans. Also remember that you are your child’s anchor/safety cues so helping to stay anchored as a parent is really important.

We love this little video on understanding and managing your threat or “lizard” brain which is suitable for children too:

Things are upside down and not okay at the moment. But, with a bit of thought and care you can come through this as a family who understands each other more, who have faced up to and dealt with some tricky dynamics and have grown together through adversity. I wonder what things will have changed for the better for you as a family or what things you will decide to keep when we have come through this?

Dr Andrea Shortland and Dr Jocelyne Kenny are Clinical Psychologists at Shortland Psychology Associates and Pocket Family Psychologists specialising in working with families and trauma.

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"Dr Andrea Shortland’s session for MediaCom on a children’s mental health was incredibly informative"

“Dr Andrea Shortland’s session for MediaCom on a children’s mental health was incredibly informative. During the second period of lockdown and home-schooling; parents and children found themselves again in a period of upheaval and transition. Many parents and carers were extremely worried about their children’s mental health and their own ability to be present and engaged whilst also playing the role of teacher and care giver. Dr Shortland gave attendees an insight into how many parents were feeling; tips on supporting children and helping them cope whilst studying from home and also managing their mental health. She also helped us realise the importance of taking care of ourselves in order to effectively support our children. It was such a useful session that we realise it was also pertinent for not only children’s mental health but also adults! We will be holding another session with Dr Andrea and MediaCom soon.”

Avelon Thompson, MediaCom (following a parenting workshop)