What a strange year it has been. As a Marriage and Family Therapist, I have had the honor of sitting with many families over the past year who are struggling in some way. It is all understandable. Our normal outlets were cut off, routines disrupted, families were thrust into unemployment, or working from home if they were lucky. Most children had to make an abrupt transition to virtual learning, and the whole atmosphere of our lives was changed, at least in small ways. The news of what was happening across the globe became increasingly overwhelming, even paralyzing at times. I find many families are still in this place, showing up each day to get by, but struggling to get the same joy from the day to day. While there are many reasons for this, I believe a big one was the sudden weight of stress from so many changes at once. The shock of having to find new ways to function in so many areas of life left us feeling exhausted and defeated. I wanted to share practical tips I used in my home, as well as the office to build continuity within our family units during this challenging time. I hope as you read you will be encouraged by the simple actions we can engage in to keep ourselves mentally healthy in the midst of uncertainty.

1. Pay attention to the little things. When it started to become apparent that life was going to be overturned for longer than we first anticipated, I recall feeling this panic about how long this would be so… uncomfortable. One way that I reset was to give myself permission to stop seeing the chaos of the world and instead focus on the little things that were happening in my family. Teeth were still getting loose and falling out. Knees were scraped. Homework needed tending to. Underwear was dirty. Allowing myself to pay attention to the normalcy of the things within my household helped me to see how much had stayed the same. This shift in focus created room for me to filter the worldly things with a much healthier perspective. We cannot change what is happening across the globe and are likely to stay in a constant state of stress if we do. However, we can acknowledge that we play an important part in the lives of our family members. Perhaps today you need to give yourself permission to stop trying to solve all the problems, and instead focus on a little way you can make a big difference within the walls of your home.

2. Play together. We have always been a game family. Board games, card games, dice games, learning games, TV game shows, we love it all! Over the past year, we have stepped up our game collection a few notches. Play is a crucial component in child development. There were so many areas where school did not return to campus. As a result, children were lacking that time to play with peers that school used to provide. While the environment is not identical, playing with your children at home has several great benefits. Play helps children learn, process stress, build critical thinking, and even improve conflict resolution skills. Play gives our children time to connect with us and create their identities as well. Guess what? Play is also great for adults! We tend to engage in less play as we get older, but the research shows play still provides us great benefits. Playing with our children also helps us to pay attention to the little things. I love that online stores were still delivering during COVID, so we could do some safe shopping to pick out some games. It may also be fun to engage in a game swap with friends you feel comfortable doing so with.

3. Keep the conversation going. It is common for humans to shut down when we feel stress. As parents we may have felt like “it is all I can do to keep everyone fed and mostly clean, there is no energy for engaging in big conversations.” I can completely relate! Talking with our kids is important though. I love that conversation with children (even the older ones!) can be much simpler than we tend to make it. Adults typically ask a LOT of questions – far more than we really need to. There does not need to be a constant stream of talking happening for you to keep the conversation going. Instead, it is more about facilitating an environment that allows the family to talk when someone feels the need to. A great way to ensure you have the capacity to give children attention for chatting, without coming up with tons of questions is to let them lead. When they start talking, just listen! As they take a natural pause, repeat back a little of what they said, or reflect an emotion they mentioned. “Oh, when you were on class today Sally kept talking over you, and that frustrated you.” We do not need to solve all the problems (see number 1!!). By just allowing our children to feel heard we encourage ongoing communication. This creates a safe place that our children feel comfortable bringing their thoughts and takes the pressure off us parents to have an answer for everything. An awesome platform for practicing this skill of reflecting is through play.

While I know there are so many more components to healthy family dynamics, I hope something from this article clicks for you. If you find yourself still struggling, I encourage you to reach out. There is great power in connection, Stay well friends.

Rachel Sullivan, LMFT, CFLE-P

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