Thinking About the Kids
For one year now, our lives have been upended in ways that were both unprecedented and unexpected. Although we’ve all risen to the challenge and found ways to adjust, a noticeable level of stress-tension has taken up residency just under the surface. An inconsiderate comment, a stubborn child, a dinner gone awry, or someone taking your parking space can trigger an emotional response way beyond the situation. With resiliency stretched to the limit, one more thing can push us over the edge. Getting outdoors, staying connected with friends, and various calming strategies can help us regain our composure. Then, something else happens to push us to the brink again.
I live in a three-generation household and worry about the negative impact of this wild ride for my grandchildren. These little guys are valiantly going along with all the Zoom school, drive-by birthdays, and cancellation of after-school sports. They’ve discovered the delight of Sunday roller skating, Land of Stories books, and cat puzzles. Even so, an elevated level of fussiness, defiance, sibling fighting, and screen dependency has become a new norm. Knowing that we have many more months of interrupted routines and uncertainty, I asked my good friend, psychologist Don MacMannis to weigh in and offer some encouragement.
Q. Dr. Mac, I read the book that you and Debra wrote a couple of years ago, titled How’s Your Family Really Doing? 10 Keys to a Happy, Loving Family. Since then, it’s been a go-to resource for understanding family dynamics and finding ways for good communication. What wisdom might you offer right now to help our families cope with the emotional stress of living in a changing, sometimes volatile world?
A. Most, but not all families are really feeling overwhelmed by the effects of the pandemic. Social isolation and Zoom fatigue have greatly contributed to a rise in the number of kids with mental health challenges.
Here’s one way to understand the situation: Imagine that we just discovered that aliens from outer space were threatening to invade, and they’re just over the hill. We’d be really scared about the situation, especially after learning that the aliens might have infiltrated our own tribe. Now, even our family or friends can be a threat to us, let alone strangers!
Fortunately, our human species has been able to adapt and survive despite the many dangers we’ve overcome over thousands of years. This is due to the fact that our bodies are equipped with an important reactive response. Perceived attacks activate the stress chemicals of adrenalin and cortisol. So with the threat of the pandemic virus, we’re pumped up and ready to defend – but with this enemy we can’t arm ourselves and then go fight. On the contrary, we’re stuck in isolation at home, often taking our frustrations out on each other. Unfortunately, those fight or flight chemicals have no outlet.
One solution: It’s an excellent time to learn and practice methods of constructive expression, with subsequent efforts at trying to find solutions and lower our stress levels. Many people have discovered the benefits of physical exercise where they work up a sweat and scream in their heads at the “stupid pandemic enemy.” Others succeed with methods of relaxation.
In my efforts to help families I was inspired to write and produce a song that’s been dubbed “The Family Pandemic Dance Song” (www.happykidsvideos.com). Free to all, it’s become a national hit as it helps to instill hope, normalize family feelings about the situation, and provides a fun outlet and vehicle for expression through singing. After feelings have been normalized and expressed, it’s an opportune time for parents to sit down and talk things over – perhaps in a family meeting.
I wonder if you could tell us more about family meetings and give some guidance about how they work.
As a family therapist, I’ve often lamented how countless numbers of families might have prevented a need for professional help by having family meetings on a regular basis.
One of the greatest benefits is that family members feel heard and respected. Meetings also provide a means for reducing conflict and improving positive thinking and appreciation of others. Although a variety of options are possible, the following topics can work as a nice starter package.
Going around the circle, everyone is encouraged to share:
Something new in their life that they feel good about
A recent experience that was upsetting
An appreciation of each family member
As needed, the use of “I-messages” to help members work out emotional hurts and upsets with each other
Additional topics can include the discussion of schedules for the coming week or making decisions and plans for the future, such as possible outings and things to look forward to. Try to conclude the process on a positive note, with some music, food, and/or a shared activity like a game. These are all proven ways to help bring out the best in everyone – processes that are especially important in these trying times.
Don MacMannis, Ph.D. is a psychologist and co-directs The Family Therapy Institute with his wife, Debra Manchester, LCSW. He has been a therapist for fifty years. His practice includes work with children, families and couples, with a specialization in parenting kids ages two to twelve.
Co-author with Debra of the highly acclaimed book on families: How’s Your Family Really Doing? 10 Keys to a Happy Loving Family, he is also a music director and songwriter for the PBS animation series, Jay Jay the Jet Plane. His latest creative efforts are with Happy Kids’ Songs, an award-winning series of songs and activities to help children boost their social and emotional skills.