Ask An Expert – Strengthening Family Relationships
‘Ask An Expert’: How To Strengthen Family Relationships During Ongoing Restrictions
The way we interact with one another may create challenges in family life, particularly at this time of change and uncertainty for children, teenagers, parents and couples alike. By becoming more aware of and working on how we relate to each other, we can strengthen family relationships.
HSE Psychology colleagues Malie Coyne, Orla Richardson, Leigh McCann, Maria Dillon, and Andrea Browne have put together information to help the public with family relationships, common emotions, how to support family members, and available supports.
Dr Malie spoke with Aidan and Ooangh about the different ways families and partners can support each other during this time.
Listen back to the full podcast below
Common emotions for family members
Parents may be feeling many emotions whilst balancing various demands. Managing the natural underlying anxiety they feel related to the pandemic with other demands (e.g., financial strains, employment loss, working from home, front-line work, grief, illness, caring for others, household chores, childcare, or home-schooling) presents challenges, which may result in a feeling of overload.
Children have an antenna for their parents’ feelings, which in turn influences the child’s own emotional response. Younger children may be feeling anxious about the virus and may not understand why they can’t take part in their usual activities (e.g., school, seeing friends or grandparents). They may detect their parents’ stress and anxiety and express this through heightened emotions such as anger and fear, and their behaviour may swing from being challenging to withdrawing or seeking reassurance.
For teenagers, peer relationships are an essential part of their development, so it is natural that they would be struggling with the ongoing social and recreational restrictions. This may have affected many important ‘rite of passage’ aspects of their lives (e.g., sitting Leaving or Junior Cert exams, heading off to Irish college, attending their debs, holidays with friends, graduating from school).
For couples living together, more time in close proximity may be a welcome change but for some this may lead to increased conflict and tension. Couples who are living apart may also experience struggles.
Parents who have separated or divorced, parents who are parenting on their own, and those caring for loved ones with disabilities or illnesses, will also be facing their own challenges.
All of these heightened emotions can put a strain on family relationships and make home life more challenging.
How can parents nurture themselves?
Remember, you cannot pour from an empty cup. In order to support your family, you need to feel nurtured yourself. Where possible, try to take some time out for yourself during the week. This may be challenging at this time but even a walk outside, prioritising quality sleep, relaxing with a cup of tea or taking a few, deep slow breaths can help! Be kind to yourself and reach out for support.
How can you support your child or teenager?
Meeting basic needs (e.g., routine, good sleep and exercise) will help children and teenagers feel more balanced. The quality of your relationship is also key:
· Focus on the feeling: Sometimes children feel overwhelmed by their feelings and are unable to put them into words. They need a parent to help them organise their feelings, e.g., ‘I can see you’re really sad about not being able to see Grandad’. Labelling their feelings will help them to feel understood.
· Problem-solving: Once the child feels understood and validated, redirection works well if they are not too upset, e.g., ‘Why don’t we write Grandad a letter?’
· Connection before correction: If your child is very upset, simply ‘connect’ with them using soothing words or offering them a hug. Later, you can ‘correct’ when they are feeling calm again, e.g., ‘I know you were feeling really angry earlier; it’s okay to feel angry but we don’t hit in this house. I am wondering what we can do the next time you feel angry?’ Come up with solutions together.
· Take time to listen and empathise (especially for teenagers): Actively listen to your teen and let them know that you understand how difficult it is for them, e.g., ‘I know it’s really hard for you not being able to see your friends, I really get that. I’m wondering is there anything I could do to help?’ Create a space where they can talk about their worries and frustrations.
· ‘Special Time’: Spending quality time with your child or teen will really help strengthen your relationship (e.g., playing one to one for a period of uninterrupted time with your child; shared enjoyment with your teen, etc.).
How can you support your couple relationship?
It’s normal when faced with stresses, especially those outside your control, to direct those feelings of frustration towards your nearest and dearest, especially a partner. The key to healthy communication is to listen to your partner with respect, try to understand their perspective, have compassion for yourself and one another, and then try your best to let less important issues go.
While couples may be spending a lot of time together there may be an absence of quality time, so it is important to try to create healthy boundaries, routines, and rituals to help nurture yourself and your relationship. Explore opportunities for increasing connection, intimacy, and fun. Take time apart when needed.
For couples who are living apart, respectful listening, communication and compassion are key. This approach also applies to parents who have separated or divorced, as it will help them to co-parent in a way which supports their children’s emotional development.
Parenting on your own
For those parenting on their own, the current restrictions can be even more difficult. Acknowledging your strengths and accepting that you are doing the best you can is really important. Be compassionate with yourself, try not to judge yourself too harshly, but do take action and seek emotional and practical support if parenting alone is becoming too challenging for you. Family or friends may be more available than you imagine, but if not, consider some of the supports listed below. They are there for you!
Remember, conflict happens in all relationships and is a normal part of family life. Repairing the disagreement provides a valuable opportunity to strengthen your relationship. When arguments happen, take some time out to yourself – it can take 90 minutes after a serious falling out to settle your system! Try a few slow, deep breaths. Only when both of you are feeling calm again and willing to talk, share your views with each other, but without blame. Take responsibility for your part, and talk about new ways of managing in the future.
The goal for all relationships is to seek to understand each other better – you can still ‘agree to disagree’. Remember, we can all be struggling at times – so take it easy on yourself and others.
In this week’s ‘Ask An Expert’ series, Aidan and Oonagh In The Morning spoke with Diane O’Mahony who is a Senior Clinical Psychologist working with the HSE. Diane answered your questions on ‘How To Stay Well While Cocooning’. A Special thanks also to Assistant Psychologists in the Galway Psychology department – Jamie Spiren and Maria Dillon – who helped Diane and others to prepare the topic for the media.
Cocooning is a measure to protect the health of those of us who are over 70 years and those who are medically vulnerable/have underlying health conditions. Cocooning means that people are asked to stay at home. In a recent nationwide study by the National University of Ireland Galway and Dublin City University, 14% of respondents reported they were cocooning, while 35% of respondents have taken on additional caring responsibilities during lockdown.
Listen Back To Aidan and Oonagh’s Chat With Diane In The Podcast Below
Common Reactions to Cocooning:
Diane explained to Aidan and Oonagh how it is perfectly normal for everyone to go through a whole range of emotions during this time. Some of the common emotions are outlined below.
Feeling safe and protected: Knowing that others are thinking of you, taking steps to reduce the reach of the virus, and maintaining connection can feel like a comfort and may provide relief during uncertain times. It may also feel reassuring that the country is working together.
Isolation/Loneliness: In the absence of everyday acts like spending time in others’ company, hugging and congregating with their community, it is normal to feel more isolated and lonely.
Vulnerability: Many people living with chronic health difficulties have learned to draw on a range of strategies to help them feel confident that they can manage their condition. However, in the current crisis, they are likely to receive frequent reminders of their ‘vulnerability’, which can be disconcerting.
Exposure: Living with an underlying health condition is a fact of life for many. However, some people cocooning may feel uncomfortable with the focus of attention they are now receiving.
Fear: It is normal to feel afraid and uncertain as we await developments and updates on COVID-19.
Boredom and lack of achievement: Having less structure and the absence of activities outside of the house can lead to feeling without purpose, boredom and with little sense of achievement.
Inadequacy: Stories and online articles proposing taking up new hobbies can lead to feelings of inadequacy and guilt. This is particularly likely to be the case for those who use social media.
How you can help yourself if you are cocooning:
- Make your physical and mental well-being your priority. Develop a routine, exercise daily (the remit of cocooning has been extended this week), eat well, keep up your medical treatments, do things that you enjoy and stay connected to others. Finding value and engagement in these activities can bring back a sense of control over your day-to-day life.
- Remind yourself of your strengths in managing this particular situation – look at what has worked up to now. Many people with underlying conditions have become experts at being apart from others to eliminate health risks.
- Acknowledge and accept what you are feeling. By labelling and accepting our feelings we can make ourselves feel calmer. The duration and impact of this pandemic is uncertain so feeling more anxious, stressed and insecure are entirely normal responses. Talk to those you trust about how you are feeling, and seek support where necessary. Minimise your exposure to media and use only reliable news sources.
- Ground yourself in the present moment – Present-moment awareness involves attending to current experience rather than predicting future events or dwelling on the past. Notice when you are getting caught up in thoughts and worries. Stop what you are doing. Take time to notice your surroundings. Feel your feet on the ground. Slow your breathing: Breathe in for 4, hold for 4, out for 6. This helps to regulate your body and encourages a feeling of calm.
- Be aware of the power of your thoughts. Remember our thoughts are not always true. Distance yourself from negative thoughts by prefacing them with ‘I am having the thought that ________’ e.g. ‘I am having the thought that this will go on forever’. Practice choosing to think helpfully: Instead of seeing cocooning as isolation, see it as minding yourself and protecting others.
How you can support someone who is cocooning:
- Take the risk seriously. For many of us, social distancing is an awkward new behaviour that is starting to feel more like a nuisance than a necessity. Never has it been truer that the behaviour of the many can help the few. By maintaining responsible behaviours in relation to slowing the spread of the virus, we are doing something that protects others.
- Remember many of those cocooning will still be at risk when restrictions start to ease. This may be a particularly challenging time for those with compromised immunity, possibly made harder by reports that others are returning to ‘normal’ life.
- Keeping support and contact will be particularly important, whether you are a friend, family, colleague or employer. Don’t forget to ask people how they are doing and what will be helpful to them. Stay connected by letter, phone or video technologies.
And remember, this too shall pass…
- HSE Live 1850 24 1850 (Monday – Friday 8am-8pm, Saturday and Sunday 10am-5pm. www.2.hse.ie/coronavirus
- www.gov.ie – Guidance on cocooning to protect people over 70 years and those extremely medically vulnerable from Covid-19
- Galway City COVID-19 Community Support Helpline 1800 400 150 or email [email protected]
- Galway County COVID-19 Community Support Helpline 1800 928 894 or email [email protected]
- Mayo COVID-19 Community Support Helpline 094 906 4660 or email [email protected]
- Roscommon COVID-19 Community Support Helpline 1800 200 727 or email [email protected]
- ALONE National Covid 19 Support Line for Older People 0818 222024
- Senior Line (listening service for older people): 1800 804 591 www.thirdageireland.ie/seniorline
- Age Action 01 475 6989
Ask An Expert – Gov.ie In This Together online Resource Explained
Aidan and Oonagh in the morning spoke with Kate O’Flaherty who is the Head of Health and Well Being at the Department of Health. Kate is also Head of “Healthy Ireland” and came on to talk about the new Government website which offers informative advice and tips to people in all areas of their lives which are currently being impacted by Covid-19.
According to the website which you can visit here” you will find lots of advice and tips on how you can look after your mental wellbeing, stay active and stay connected. In This Together draws together a huge range of activities that you can pursue in your home or your locality, by yourself or with family members or with friends online. There are ideas and activities for people of all ages”.
About ‘In This Together’
The spread of COVID-19 (Coronavirus) is a new and challenging event. Everyone’s lives and daily routines are affected by the measures that have been introduced to disrupt the spread of the virus, and keep us all safe.
It’s normal to be worried or to feel stressed during this difficult time, but there are many things we can do to help us mind our mental health and well-being.
Listen back to Aidan and Oonagh’s chat with Kate below