Managing through this next phase of the pandemic, when the adrenalin of the initial crisis has long worn off and there’s no finish line yet in sight, is going to take a new level of adjustment for families.
We’ve hit what Aisha Ahmad, a University of Toronto associate professor of international security described in a viral Twitter thread as “the six-month wall” — just as we levelled up the uncertainty of COVID-19 living with our kids returning to school.
Drawing on experience living in disaster zones while conducting field research in places such as Afghanistan and Somalia, Ahmad defined the six-month wall as a slump she inevitably hit when her desire to escape or “make it stop” was overwhelming. Inevitably, however, it passes after a few weeks, she explained. The key is to be gentle with ourselves while we do some resetting that will get us through the months ahead.
“Just don’t expect to be sparklingly happy or wildly creative in the middle of your wall,” she wrote. “Right now, if you can meet your obligations and be kind to your loved ones, you get an A-plus.”
(For the sake of parenting sanity, let’s loosely define being kind to your loved ones as keeping everybody fed and sheltered, while only losing our cool some of the time.)
It makes sense that many of us have hit a point of exhaustion. We’ve used a lot of energy simply relearning to do ordinary things such as grocery shop in COVID-appropriate ways. It’s no wonder that now, after months of breathlessly waiting for news about how daycares and schools would reopen, we’ve run out of what psychologist Ann Masten calls “surge capacity.”
In a story by Tara Haelle for Medium publication Elemental, Masten explained that surge capacity is a collection of mental and physical resources that humans draw upon for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters.
But because the pandemic isn’t a short-term situation, those resources have been depleted.
And since this disaster is happening everywhere in the world, even if it’s in your budget, you can’t simply take a vacation to get away from it and recharge your batteries.
Instead, we need to find ways to revive ourselves in incremental bits — going on walks to take in the autumn leaves or curling up with a page-turning novel, for example — in order to bolster ourselves against the unpredictability of the months ahead. This way we’ll be better prepared to crisis manage when cold symptoms or COVID-19 cases at school keep our kids at home, or send us to long lineups in anxious search of negative test results.
I spoke with family therapist and bestselling parenting author Alyson Schafer recently about some things parents can do to help themselves and their kids cope with this particular stage of life in the pandemic.
1. Slow down
The most critical bit of reframing parents can do right now pertains to the pace we keep, said Schafer. “We do things differently when something’s a sprint versus when something’s a marathon.” Parents tend to be quite high achieving with what they expect of themselves, and in ordinary times that is reflected in calendars packed with enriching activities and adorable birthday parties. Though some stuff is simply subtracted from our schedules by COVID-19 safety requirements, we still need to manage our energy expenditure to keep ourselves from snapping, she said. “We have to get into that marathon thinking, and figure out how just to satisfy as opposed to optimize.” Your kids need a school lunch, not an Insta-worthy bento box, some reasonably clean clothes to wear, not a whole new fall wardrobe or a perfectly clean playroom.
2. Prepare for the inevitable
Given parents are asked to keep kids home from school if they have any COVID-19 symptoms at all — even though these overlap considerably with run-of-the-mill colds and seasonal allergies — Schafer recommends contingency planning now for a situation where your child needs to stay home. That could mean talking to your workplace about some adjustments, and also to family and friends, ideally that you’re already bubbled with, who could help with child care in a pinch, she said. Planning will reduce the psychological burden of anxiously anticipating a school disruption.
3. Think of ourselves as explorers
It can also help both ourselves and our kids to acknowledge the newness of this terrain and frame it in the impressive historical context it’ll occupy in history. “I think about the people that first, you know, left sail from the shores to see whether or not the world was round or flat,” said Schafer. “We have to have a little bit of trust in ourselves to say, you know, everything is going to look new … and to tap into our inner faith in ourselves, to actually have the capacity to be agile.”
4. Take good care of the body
While we’re coping with new stressors, it’s a particularly good time to pay extra attention to some of the basic foundations of our good physical and mental health, said Schafer. “When we eat good nutrition, we get a good night’s sleep, when we exercise to dispel energy, those are all things that the biological organism needs so that its natural ability to manage stress functions better.” Let the pandemic be an opportunity to model and talk to our kids about these pillars of self-care, she said, and if you haven’t tried it already, give mindfulness meditation a go with a kid-centric platform like Evolve, or for the grown-up, apps like Headspace and Calm.
5. Establish a family meeting
Many essential and front-line workers have had to sacrifice time with family during this crisis. In contrast, a lot of us have had an abundance of time together during the pandemic, often in close quarters where conflicts can easily arise. That’s why a regular family meeting can go such a long way during a time like this, said Schafer.
“The benefit of having family meetings is you’re making a conscious effort to solve the problems in the family. Rather than seeing kids as misbehaving … it really shifts the perspective to, ‘We don’t do this well; how can we do it better?’ When you get very solution based, you would be amazed at how many of the things that really irk us and kind of erode our family connectivity and happiness, can really just be solved by sitting down and discussing it in a time of calm.”