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7 Ways Parents Can Navigate Family Dynamics During COVID-19

Family Dynamics

Your home is now your workplace, childcare center, gym, go-to dining spot and more. There’s no escaping the family dynamics of being home and together with everyone in your family – for better or for worse. 

Family dynamics are already complicated, even under normal circumstances. But now, the intense pressure and lack of boundaries of being home all the time is putting extra strain on families. 

Devin Maroney, LMSW at Potomac Program’s Cabin John location in Maryland, says there are a few warning signs to pay attention to that will indicate if the family system is under too much strain: 

  1. Extended periods of isolation: Eye contact and verbal contact are small touchpoints that should be made regularly throughout the day. “It’s also just good for everybody to be regularly in touch. It doesn’t have to be intense, but if you notice you haven’t talked to your child in a day or half a day, and you’re under the same roof, that can be a sign that they’re pulling away.” (Good advice for adults, too!) 
  1. Rage: Simmering anger is often a secondary emotional state, covering underlying feelings of fear, shame, or grief. Are you noticing more explosive conversations at home? “Anger can be a sign that someone’s internally wrestling with something else. So if your kid seems to have a quicker fuse than usual, strong negative opinions, or seems frustrated a lot, that can be a place to spend some care and attention,” he says.  
  1. You think one person in the family is the problem: Is there a lot of finger-pointing going on, especially towards one member of the family? “It’s often a sign that there are other pieces to the puzzle that haven’t been identified yet. Things happen within the family to the entire family,” Maroney says. 

So, What’s a Parent to Do? 

Maroney recommends that parents start with the factor they have the most control over: Themselves. This is not to assign blame, but rather, start creating positive change within your family dynamics. 

Practice Pre-Forgiveness

In fact, he says parents should practice “pre-forgiveness,” a concept introduced to him by Tara Brach, a psychologist and meditation teacher. “I would encourage parents to pre-forgive themselves for what is going to be a difficult period ahead. It has already been a difficult period, and we are all facing a time of continued uncertainty with work, with school, and with life generally.”  

You might be unaccustomed to being home all the time, working from home, dealing with stress when you leave your home, playing the role of the primary educator for your child, and more. And, you’re probably sleep-deprived from all the extra stress and responsibility. “All of this is going to have a negative impact on our emotional health and well-being, and that is going to manifest in our family relationships,” says Maroney. “The best thing we can do right now is to accept our humanity and to accept that we will make mistakes. And that’s ok.” 

Mind. Body. Heart. 

Maroney says that if parents can find time to do things just for themselves to nurture their own ability to cope, it can be tremendously beneficial.  

Of course, this comes with a very important caveat: “We often work with clients whose families have jobs and obligations that make pretty intense demands on their time and energy, and addressing those demands, along with the demands of parenting, can be really challenging. So, I don’t want to make light of that.” 

But, if you can find some time, even if it’s just once per week, try to check in with these three categories: 

  1. Do something for your body. Walking, running, stretching, yoga, anything that nurtures your body is likely to help relieve stress and boost positivity. 
  1. Do something for your mind. Focus on activities that calm the mind. If you are religious, find the time to connect with peaceful religious readings or talks. For people who are oriented towards nature, find time for the mind to be relaxed in a natural setting. For people who like art, allow the mind to experience expansiveness by looking at great works of art. During this rejuvenating time, skip the news, politics, or violent media that agitate you. “I encourage people to find peaceful, quiet time. It might feel boring, but boring is excellent.” 
  1. Do something for your heart. “I encourage parents to connect with other adults. It’s the same kind of connection that I would encourage them to facilitate with their kids: Easy, non-goal-based, non-directive, hangout time.” Take a leisurely bike ride, take a walk, play a game, chat on the phone. “If there’s a connection where you can process your problems with a friend, even better.” 

Maroney emphasizes that if parents can find a certain measure of peace with themselves, “their children will naturally benefit from it.” 

Listen Without Judgment, Speak from Personal Experience

 Although it might sound like a basic piece of advice, speaking from your own experiences and focusing on what you’re feeling is a productive way to address any friction in the family system. 

“Use ‘I’ statements,” Maroney says. “It seems so basic, but it often goes out of the window when people start to get annoyed. So many problems can be solved by simply speaking from personal experience.” 

And, if your child wants to vent, sometimes it’s better to just listen to them and acknowledge their feelings, rather than to try to fix the situation right away.  

Utilize Family Therapy

“I think family therapy is an under-utilized resource,” says Maroney. 

It can be tremendously valuable, particularly when it’s combined with individual therapy (which is at the core of Potomac’s philosophy). 

“It can also be helpful to use a technique that we call ‘externalization,’” he says, “which means instead of saying ‘Mom is depressed’ or ‘Son is anxious’ or ‘Dad is angry,’ we ask, ‘What’s it like when there’s a lot of anger, depression, or anxiety here?’”  

Like using “I” statements, this tactic shifts us out of a blaming mindset. Instead of pointing fingers, families ask, “How do we work with these difficult emotions when they visit?” Externalizing helps us remember that we are all in it together.  

Keep Calm, Parent On 

Nurturing your own inner peace and calm can allow you to not only bear up against the additional stress and strain we are all feeling, but also deal with added pressures at home. And remember to forgive yourself for whatever you can’t achieve – there’s no perfection in parenting. Only practice!