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Helping Families Cope One Day at a Time

This article has been percolating in my head for a while. The thought of writing it has been daunting because the topic is enormous and there are many angles from which to approach the many ways that this pandemic has touched all aspects of everyone’s lives - socially, emotionally, physically, and financially.

Let me begin by saying that like you, my foremost thoughts are about helping to keep me, my family, friends, clients, and community safe. With this in mind, I am not seeing my clients out of my office but via telecounseling - video and over the phone. Last year, while recuperating for a couple of months from foot surgery at home, I had the opportunity to rehearse for this pandemic. My clients and I realized how incredibly effective telecounseling can be and so, I continue to encourage my reluctant clients to give it a try. Those who have are glad they did.

No matter how well your family is working together, there are daily questions and decisions to be made, such as who will go grocery shopping? Is it okay to walk to a friend’s house and sit in their backyard six feet apart? Is it safe for the grandchildren to play ball at their grandparents’ house while they sit watching from a distance? My expertise doesn’t provide me with immediate answers to these questions, but as I’ve said time and again over the past few weeks, “We’re all learning as we go,” “Let’s take one day at a time,” and “Let’s explore the risks and rewards on a case-by-case basis.”

This is some of what I have learned so far:

We can change our attitude. While it’s important not to dismiss feelings of anxiety, sadness, anger, and fear around this pandemic, it’s also important to look for the silver lining in this cloud. My attitude allows me to reflect on some of the positive outcomes, such as the time that ‘this break from the normal’ has allowed people to spend more time with their family, to catch up with old friends via social media and for the older crowd, learn more about how to use new technology, to get off the treadmill of running between appointments and extracurricular activities, for teens and adults who are dating to learn more about their prospective partners without feeling rushed into being physically intimate, the bonus of not having to sit in traffic for hours each day trying to get to work on time and then back home in time for supper, to allow your children to invite as many friends as they’d like to their virtual party without having a big mess to clean up afterward. During these difficult times, there are many opportunities to see the glass half-full.

We need structure and routine. I maintain a regular schedule (even if it’s looser than typical). We need to be mindful about getting up and going to bed at regular, healthy times, and maintaining hygiene. It’s important to get changed out of your pajamas into your day clothes every morning. It’s important to eat the same number of meals as you typically do and around the same time you usually do is important, too. Maybe arranging a specific time to call a friend, to FaceTime with a parent or grown children or grandchildren are all great ideas for maintaining some structure and routine into your days.

It’s important to take one day at a time. I hear so many people - clients, friends, family - say things like, “I wish I knew when this was going to end; the uncertainty is anxiety-provoking,” “I think this is going to go on for at least a year; maybe we will never return to normal,” and “What happens if I need medical attention for something other than the virus and can’t get it?” Yes, these fears are normal. Feeling anxious when things are not in order and there’s uncertainty is normal, too. But I urge you to visualize a stop sign and to remind yourself not to go there. It’s okay to ride the wave but not to allow yourself to be swept away by it. Deal with the now. Think about what you’re going to do this day. At the very most, think about what you’re going to do this week, but no more.

It feels good to get up and move. These days, I am guilty of spending more time in front of my computer. I have to remind myself to get up and get active for an hour or so. I do housework (washing dishes in warm sudsy water can be therapeutic), and I go for a walk around my neighborhood. Walking releases endorphins, which makes us feel better.

Practice patience and self-care. Being at home with the same people 24/7 magnifies the positive and negative aspects of these relationships. For example, one member of your family may uplift everyone’s spirit with their sense of humor. Another member of the family may be baking the most delectable cookies and breads and filling the house with a smell that inspires feelings of warmth and nurturing. On the other hand, being cooped up for long periods of time with the same people can magnify the idiosyncratic behaviors that are tolerable when you’re typically away from one another during the day. Go for a walk to let off some steam or find a specific spot in your home where you can be alone, even if only for a short period of time. If you’re co-parenting, especially with young children, tag team parenting duties to allow each parent some well-deserved quiet time.

Have family meetings and dinners together. Make it a habit to come together for dinner. In fact, I recommend this even when not living through a pandemic. Family dinners provide a great opportunity to talk about what each has heard (either on the news or through social media) that day, how each is feeling during these uncertain times and to listen to each other’s fears (acknowledge but not feel the need to fix them), and to share one positive thing that each has learned this day as a result of living through COVID-19. Appreciating having one another and having enough food to eat, for example, may be something that a family member may begin to realize they took for granted before this pandemic. With younger children, talk about what activities they’d like to do more of. Maybe this is the time to look through the games cupboard and to take out those at the back that you’d forgotten about. Maybe everyone can contribute family activity ideas into a jar so that a couple of the ideas can be drawn from the jar each day. This is the perfect time to model resilience and a positive attitude around your children and family. It is the time to pull together and role model helping not just the family, but the community and perhaps the world at large, becoming a global team. Let the kids know that they are in the midst of history-making times. That in years to come, they will have stories of resilience and patience to share with their children.

This is an opportunity to clear your clutter. How many times have you said that if only you had the time, you’d tackle a project in the house that has gone unattended for years? Now’s the time! Caution: I know that it’s tempting to get out your partner’s to-do list now that your partner is captive, but this may not work so well. Sitting down together and figuring out what needs to be tackled, who’s going to do what and how, will work best.

Filter information. We live in a time of information overload. Some of that information comes from trusted experts and some comes from friends who heard something from a friend, and so on. Information, true or rumoured, can go viral in minutes. News broadcasts, even from people in the know, can be presented in a sensational manner. It’s important to choose one or two trusted experts or news broadcasts that present information in factual but undramatized ways and to filter out the rest. Be careful how you share information with others, too. I urge you to do so responsibly. While on social media, don’t click ‘share’ without knowing or trusting the source. And watch what you say in front of your children. Children are traumatized by overhearing (and they are hearing even when you think they’re otherwise occupied) glib or dramatic comments between one adult and another. “It feels like the world is ending” is difficult for anyone to hear, even if they don’t believe it. A child may not have the ability to reason out what they hear and may create more panic than you realize.

This too shall pass. Even though you may feel especially burdened right now because your income is reduced, or you’ve been laid off or you’re struggling with juggling working from home and keeping the kids occupied and in touch with learning online, take note that we are all in this together. Unlike the individual who calls to ask a creditor for a break because of a personal financial crisis, now it’s assumed that most people need a break and many are getting one. Even though you may feel that this will drag on for a long time and you’re worried about how you’re going to cope, consider that you have emerging coping and managing skills you didn’t know you had. Even though you may be missing spending time in the company of your friends and extended family, missing going to the theatre to catch the latest movie or going out for dinner, think about how much more special these people and places will be when we slowly transition back to what we knew as normal.

Stay strong and stay safe!

Sara Dimerman is a psychologist, author, and mom to two daughters. For more advice, connect at or on Twitter @helpmesara.

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