Tips for Managing the Stress of Social Distancing as a Family

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Any parent balancing work, homeschool and the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic is bound to have their limits tested by sheltering in place with kids who haven't seen their friends or participated in sports. Lisa Damour, a clinical psychologist and author of Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls, knows well about the stress families face in ordinary times. In these extraordinary times, she has the following advice for families to help get through the crisis:

How does the fear and uncertainty of what’s to come affect all of us?

Humans rely on predictability. We are built to read our environment, anticipate what comes next and prepare ourselves for it. We do it consistently to manage our day-to-day. Under normal circumstances, we feel some stress when there’s uncertainty. Usually, there’s a teaspoon of uncertainty in a gallon of routine. Now, we have a gallon of uncertainty.

What can parents do to help themselves during this period?

We know from research on chronically stressful situations—which we have already here, or will soon—is that people are better able to bear what they’re going through if they divide the causes of stress into two categories:

  1. Things they can do something about.
  2. Things they can do nothing about.

As an example of the first, you might be worried that you’re running out of bread. You can do something about this! Get to the store, dig up a recipe, recruit others for help. An example of the second might be worry over unemployment or wondering where the next pay check will come from.

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When stress arises in the first category, go for it. Bake the bread! When it comes to the second, there are two helpful paths. The first is acceptance, which is easy to say and hard to do. The second is finding positive distractions: talking to friends, watching funny movies, exercising, eating chocolate.

How can parents help their kids?

Create routines. It doesn’t have to be like the military, but kids need the world to be predictable more than they need it to be consistently pleasant. Anything we can do to move toward routines, the better. What’s hard is that parents have lost their routines as well. So, be gentle with yourself and our child. Have aspirational routines. Make provisional routines and assess them. Refine them until they become sturdy.

What should we be on the lookout for with our kids?

Be careful about negative coping mechanisms. These include substance abuse, self-harm, withdrawal and mistreating others. If you see negative coping mechanisms developing, it’s very helpful to recognize it as a way to cope. Even if what they’re doing is unhealthy, they’re doing it as a way to feel better. The trouble with unhealthy coping mechanisms that they offer some relief in the short term but make things worse in the long term. People who are doing this should be encouraged to feel better in ways that don’t hurt themselves or others.

If people feel like they can’t get away from their unhealthy coping mechanism, they can now get psychological help without leaving their homes. The Department of Health and Human Services just lifted all regulations on telehealth. To find a practitioner, go through the same old referral system as you would in ordinary times. Call your general practitioner for recommendations. Psychology Today also has a good marketplace to find a therapist.

Is there anything positive for families to come out of this crisis?

Without minimizing the impact of unemployment or illness, this just made life easier in some ways, in terms of the complexity and demands of family life. There’s also no excuse now for not getting enough sleep. High school kids need nine hours. Middle-schoolers need ten. And elementary-school children require 11 hours of sleep.

Lisa Damour is a psychologist and author of Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls.