I've been a bit short with my kids and spouse lately. The global pandemic of Covid-19, lockdowns, and social distancing have put many of us in close quarters with our family for longer than we're used to. We’re prevented from doing some things and forced to do others, and it's stressful to learn new habits for this new reality. Our routines have been severely thrown off and whatever we thought was normal simply isn’t anymore. Whatever was in our relationships before is impossible to avoid in these close quarters. Normal discipline that might have worked in the normal routine of life might not seem to work anymore. And as parents, your emotions and anger may be much closer to the surface than you’re used to.
So how do we deal with all of this stress, when everyone is on each other’s nerves?
Understand that everyone is stressed and even grieving loss from this abnormal situation. When your kids throw a tantrum out of nowhere or demand something irrational, remember that they are just as stressed as you are and might lack the emotional maturity to express it. When your spouse snaps uncharacteristically remember that working from home or fearing a lay-off can be stressful as well. Understand that everyone is grieving the loss of normal life right now and that typically brings emotions closer to the surface than they would normally be. The same understanding is needed for high school students not knowing if they will get to return to campus this year and college students that saw their year thrown upside down when they had to leave campus. Those situations can bring about a great sense of loss along with the stress of moving to online learning. There is a lot roiling under the surface for everyone.
Have direct conversations about what's happening, not only with the situation but also the relationships in the house. Ask your family to describe how they feel. Ask directly about how they're experiencing this strange time; ask them to name what they like and don't like about these weeks. Talk about how they are feeling in relationship to others around them. Do they love the attention? Feel smothered? Be honest about your own feelings. If their behavior makes you happy or angry, say so. Offering transparency in confusing times helps everyone navigate, and you lead your family in articulating their experience.
We all have a need to have our pain be acknowledged. Offering empathy helps us to carry the burdens of others. Galatians 6:2 tells us, "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ." When we pause for a moment to name the pain, we help our children to be seen and heard. We may not be able to fix the situation but we can lament together that this is not the way we would have liked for things to be. Being able to step into their pain by saying, "it does stink that your event is cancelled" or "it is hard to be so far away from your friends." Even "I can see that it makes you sad when your favorite blue cup is dirty and you can't use it right now." When we can acknowledge the anxiety being faced no matter how trivial it may seem to us, we are helping to carry the pain and reduce the anxiety.
Name your own emotions. Can you be honest with yourself about how you feel? Set some boundaries for self care. Steal a moment to be alone to think about how this is going for you. If you find yourself boiling over, dismiss yourself from the situation to quiet your emotions. It may be just better for you to dismiss yourself for a short time from whatever situation is developing to calm down. If you feel your anger raising to a point you aren’t comfortable with in relation to your children or spouse, ask for a few minutes by yourself to collect your thoughts and emotions. It is better to call a timeout than to say or do something that you will regret later.
Especially if you have small children, routine is your friend. Children find security in routine, knowing what's expected, what comes next. Define a sequence of what are play times, chore times, meal time, tidying times, alone times, together times, bedtimes, etc. Make plans together about how you might like to spend time together and time apart. What are times for high-tech toys and online socializing, and what are times to unplug for lo-tech time reading, doing chores, or playing board games. Your routines don't have to be what they were when you had to run here and there, but establishing new ones will help keep everyone calm.
When stress is high and emotions are flaring, exercise is a great way to relieve some of that. Get outside and go for a walk, run, or bike ride. Walk circles around your house every hour just to stretch. Grab some weights if you have them (and improvise if you don’t) and head to the garage or basement for a workout. Many gyms or fitness apps have posted modified workouts on their web sites that you can check out. Staying in physical shape and burning energy that way will help you stay in emotional shape as well.
Give extra grace and ask for extra grace. It might be time to move the line of expectations a little bit. While it is good to keep things the same during these different times, extending a little extra time for fun activities or for the completion of tasks might be needed. Instead of one warning before a punishment, maybe allow for two warnings. Explain why you are frustrated or angry if the situation arises. Talk calmly through things instead of resorting to punishment right away. A little extra grace and understanding can go a long way during stressful times. Remember the unfailing grace that God has extended to you.
There are few things more powerful than modeling to your children how to say “I’m sorry.” If you allowed your emotions to get the best of you and need to apologize to your children, do it! Explain to them why you were angry, what you did that was wrong, and apologize for it. Your children won’t forget it and will be more likely to model that back to you or to their siblings and friends later if they saw it modeled well from you.
Remember that God is at the center of your family even in these stressful times. We’ve been reading Psalm 23 a lot lately. Having that constant reminder that God is our shepherd and our provider is so important for us. He is in control and providing for our needs. He is leading us and guiding us. Having that reminder as a family can help us even when our tempers flare and our emotions rise.
Don’t let the stress and irregularity damage your families emotional and relational health. With God’s guidance you will get through this time.
Rev. Dr. Steven Koster