Navigating these crazy, crappy, uncertain times as a family

No matter where you are in the world right now there is still no sense of certainty around when we may be able to live our lives with the freedoms we previously enjoyed.

For those in lockdown — especially those in the greater Sydney area where you are moving into 8+ weeks and of course our dear Melbourne friends who as I write are heading into their 200th day of lockdown since March 2020 — if you are not feeling exhausted, fatigued, overwhelmed and struggling with generalised ‘malaise’ at times, I would be concerned that you may be paddling up the river of denial!

As humans, our two fundamental drivers are to survive and to be concerned about the survival of those closest to us. This means that our survival gatekeeper, the amygdala, is doing its job exactly as intended. When bad things happen, the amygdala activates our nervous system and floods it with the hormone cortisol. This activates all sorts of things in the body that increase your chances of survival. In small doses, around stressful situations, this anxiety can heighten your sense of focus, give you an increased level of energy and increase your chances of managing the challenge that has appeared (like running fast from a sabre tooth tiger).

So no matter how intelligent you are, how financially safe you are or where you live, this pandemic continues to create messages of threat for our amygdala. Constantly living in this fight-flight space is exhausting.

It can be really helpful to know when the threat will end because it helps the brain to plan, to prioritise and to take steps to ensure an individual will reach the end point. Having an endpoint, is sometimes known as cognitive closure. It’s a bit like knowing a marathon is 42km and that even if you are struggling in the middle of it, you know the end awaits you.

This pandemic does not have that endpoint clarity and that is one reason why we are all struggling with stress.

Families in lockdown who are also required to ensure remote learning for their children, often while working from home, are particularly exhausted. There is no way that you can effectively and consistently be your child’s learning facilitator, as well as a parent who meets their basic needs, while meeting the requirements of your work, having the energy to be a healthy co-partner if you’re in a relationship, and supporting loved ones who you have been forcibly separated from.

It is simply not doable.

What is doable are parts of the above.

The brain needs a (loose) plan and, as exhausting as it might be to have to make a plan, day in/day out, having a plan is good for our brain as it likes predictability. Navigating the best time for you to meet your work requirements needs to be a part of the whole family plan. Fortunately, by now most work environments are quite used to having relaxed Zoom meetings with children walking in and out asking random questions and even with a toddler sitting on your lap. We can still meet our work commitments with our children around — some of the time.

There will be times parents will need to create a more private time for important work commitments. If you have a coparent who lives in your house consider the designated parent strategy, which Dr Kristy Goodwin talks about. This means only one parent is accessible for a block of time. Some families have created bright T-shirts with DP on the front to remind children who is the designated parent. Parents can swap over as need be.

This is more of a challenge if you’re a solo parent, trying to work from home with your kids. Another way to create quiet time is to have digital minders watching your children while they do some learning activities, listen to an educational podcast or watch a high-quality documentary about space, nature or bugs. David Attenborough, thank you for everything you have created! Also, having a grandparent join in the activity digitally can keep that activity happening safely (I’ve certainly done this with my grandies). Heck we might even learn something too!

Ultimately, you can only do what you can do.

These uncertain days can be especially challenging for parents who are essential workers who have to leave the safety of home and who have others caring for their precious children in daycare and schools. Thank you.

We are all in the same storm just in different boats. To all the school communities who are full of hard-working teachers who are doing their best under these trying circumstances we need to be grateful. Avoid judgement and criticism as it will only add to the stress. Strive to be a positive presence and shine a light as it will shine back on you too. And can I please urge teachers and parents to watch this important video.

Golden opportunity

Lockdown can be a wonderful opportunity to have your children learn how to step up and be more responsible. Seriously many of today’s children have had it far too easy with loving parents doing far too much for them! One of the key aspects of a healthy sense of self or self-esteem, is self-efficacy. That means the capacity to do things for themselves. Not only does it make them feel better about themselves, it helps them to grow into being competent, capable young people.

Our kids need to know that a family is a system and everyone is responsible for helping the system thrive in a healthy way. Relationships are about give and take. Our kids can take over washing, hanging out clothes, folding up clothes, sweeping, sorting out dishwashers and planning and preparing meals and snacks. Seriously this is a golden opportunity to have your kids learn some valuable life skills.

The lesson of being real

Underneath our stress of navigating our uncertain, crazy world, are many of our fears and unexpressed emotions. Do not be afraid to share those big feelings with your children, especially your grief. Every time we lose the opportunity to spend time with loved ones, to go on a holiday, to return to school to see friends, we experience grief. Grief is not because we are weak it is because we are human. Let your children see you cry and give them the agency to know what to do when they see you cry. They can grab the tissues, they can give you a hug and, if they’re old enough, they can make you a cuppa. Our children need to see that when big bad things happen to grown-ups, it can cause them to have times when they feel upset.

Explaining to our children that we can change what our brain is doing (and thus how we are feeling) is really important.

When we identify we are feeling stressed, we can teach our kids that we can move the cortisol that is flooding our body by doing an activity that gets their heart rate up, by doing something that is fun, by being ridiculous and making each other laugh or by deep breathing and doing a mindfulness activity. We are not powerless to move the stress in our body and our mind. This needs to be one of the most important things you focus on.

We don’t have to stay stuck in this awful, stressful state.

Becoming conscious of NEGATIVE thoughts gives us power over them. Taming our negative thoughts, which I often call ANTS — automatic negative thoughts — can be as simple as telling them to bugger off! Or we can repeat phrases like:

Delete, delete, delete.

I am ok exactly as I am.

I am. I can. I will.

I am more than this.

Stressed brains don’t learn well, don’t play well and can struggle to find the place of ‘rest and digest’ that the sympathetic nervous system is hungry for. We all need pockets of rest from the stress – physically and mentally. Check out my ‘Soothers’ for some tips on that.

Make a list of the ways you can change the neurochemicals in the brain and have it front and centre in your house. It can be different for each individual.

Ways to change neurochemicals…

  • Gestures of kindness towards someone else
  • Laughter and lightness
  • Singing and dancing
  • Walking in nature
  • Hugging a pet (real or of the stuffed toy variety)
  • Deep breathing
  • Hugging or positive safe touch
  • Facetime/Skype a loved one
  • Drawing, painting, writing
  • Cooking something yummy like pancakes
  • Relaxation, yoga, guided visualisation (here’s a link to a free gift from me, my Beach Bliss visualisation).This is a great relaxing audio to do with your children..

Some days, your family will just need to stop all the TO DO things like remote learning, work and housework and watch a family movie with popcorn or ice cream. Do this with no guilt. Maybe have a family game of Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit or do a puzzle together or play hide and seek or make a cubby.

This is wellbeing and it is important.

Don’t beat yourself up if your kids are on screens more. This is about survival.

TV is better than handheld devices for lots of reasons, especially if it is commercial free. Rather than worry about how much time they are spending on screens, focus on how safe are they and what are they doing?

Turn all WiFi off at same time every night – an hour before bedtime for kids (and you) is best.

SLEEP is one of your best friends. Without REM sleep, our bodies and brains do not rest, refresh and grow. Prioritise sleep and afternoon naps. Every time the parasympathetic nervous system gets to the rest and digest state, the less the brains strives to fight this damn pandemic.

There is so much truth in the wisdom of this present moment. Our brain can misbehave by focusing too much on the future and the past and we literally scare ourself with our imaginings. Let’s focus on the now.

No matter where you are living through 2020 and 2021 living this strange thing called life has been crappy and we all wished this pandemic was over. No one is doing fantastically well. Most of us have good days and bad days. This is normal. The research is quite strong that having a gratitude focus helps us to get through difficult times and seriously our kids come up with some fabulous stuff that they are grateful for.

Spend some time with your family building hope. Have each child and yourselves plan an experience, an activity or a holiday that you will do in the future. It can be like a vision board where they can find photos, pictures or words that will inspire them and encourage them to know that one day life will be easier. We all need something to look forward to.

It is OK to not be OK. However having something tangible to look forward to while living authentically in this version of now, is just good common sense.


Finally, if you need extra support and/or to talk with someone, please visit/call Lifeline (13 11 14), Kids Helpline (for kids and young adults 5-25, 1800 55 1800) or Beyond Blue. And maybe write out their numbers/websites and stick them somewhere prominent so everyone in your household knows that help is just a mouse click/phone call away.


On Thursday 16th September 2021 at 4pm Maggie is running her Practical Parenting in a Pandemic Webinar. This event is all about coping with the ongoing challenges of the pandemic and how to keep building strength and resilience for yourself and your family in the months ahead.  You can sign up to join Maggie live or access the replay after the event.

 

Image credit: ©️ By oes/Adobe Stock – stock.adobe.com