This parent spoke for many others when she shared this recently. “I keep reading that kids need us to stay connected more than ever during this pandemic. But our family is stretched so thin. My partner is working in a grocery store, and I am working from home, teaching my kids, and parenting. I feel like we’re barely holding it together. I just can’t give them all the happy, extended family time that I know they need right now. It feels awful.”
“You’re definitely not alone,” I responded. “You are right, that your kids do need connection as a buffer against all this stress. But let’s talk a bit more about what real connection looks like before you add parental guilt to your own list of stressors.”
Kids do need connection. But what does it look like?
A simple scroll through instagram can showcase a highlights reel of specific versions of family connection. Greeting cards, advertisements and commercial culture portray connection with joyful images and sentimentality.
Of course we all want and need healthy doses of joy and happiness in our lives. Sharing joy certainly shortens the distance between us. Just because connection contains joy, however, doesn’t mean that other feelings aren’t included as well. In other words, just because connection can feel easier during ideal times doesn’t mean it can’t be sustained through real times.
The kind of connection that kids need is the kind that communicates a more expansive set of commitments to what being a family means. It includes the ideas, “Our relationship can handle your big feelings.” and “we can do hard things together.”
Family connection includes joy and wonder, struggle, vulnerability, patience, and forgiveness. Let’s certainly try to create and enjoy the delightful moments of all of this unexpected time together. Let’s be grateful when they happen. But caregivers are the other “essential workers” on the front lines of this pandemic and the double and triple shifts are straining family systems everywhere. When we hit our limits, let’s not forget real ways we can sustain connection through challenge.
Here are a few ideas to get started:
Create small, accessible family rituals.
Even little and seemingly mundane parenting rituals can be a way to quickly connect, ground ourselves, and prepare for what’s next. Rituals don’t need to require a lot of time, training or a professional. Rituals are actually wildly accessible. All we need is ourselves, our kids, and a willingness to create something that matters. Our families deserve these small moments to breathe and make meaning amidst the current uncertainty.
Be a team.
Connection isn’t the absence of conflict. It’s how we move through it. Harsh discipline tends to backfire and escalate anxiety during times of stress. While consistent boundaries are helpful, the reality is that the pandemic is requiring many of us to problem solve, improvise, and make all kinds of difficult trade-offs. Remembering where challenging behaviors come from can help us empathize with our kids and communicate to them that, “we are going to figure this out together.” This frame goes a long way towards staying connected on even the hardest days.
Part of moving through conflict as a team is being willing to apologize and learning how to do it well. Connection gets stronger when we find our way back towards each other after we make mistakes. This doesn’t necessarily mean long, drawn out family discussions, especially with younger children. It does mean that we acknowledge hurt and find ways to repair. It also means paying attention to unhealthy patterns and not being afraid to reach out for mental health support if we need it.
Build your family’s story.
Family storytelling doesn’t demand perfection., It demands attention to our strengths through messes, triumphs, and challenges alike. It doesn’t require a long story hour or start with, “Once upon a time.” Family stories are how we narrate the everyday details of our family histories and current events. They help bind us together during uncertain times and communicate to kids that though our family has had ups and downs, we have unique strengths and we stick together.
Believe in your capacity to grow.
Many of us have already seen the “growth mindset” lessons that used to come home from school with our kids and now are delivered via distance learning. Unfortunately we often forget to apply that wisdom to our entire family system. A fixed mindset believes that abilities are fixed traits and that talent is what leads to success, not effort. In contrast, a growth mindset celebrates struggle and stretch mistakes. There is no doubt that many of us are stretching right now. So now is a good time to remember that parenting is not a pass or fail enterprise. It is not a fixed ability that either leads to resilient kids or doesn’t. It is something that we work at, day in and day out. Some days we are our best selves. Other days not so much. Then we work to mend it.