In order to be open-hearted in my household during the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home order—with each family member grieving something important to them in their own way—I need to prioritize my self-care to be capable of tapping into compassion for myself and others.
For my self-care, I am running in the woods every day, walking my dog, meditating, eating healthy, connecting with friends and family outside the household regularly online, asking for space and quiet in my own house, making time to calm down before I go to bed, and in general striving to communicate effectively about my own feelings and needs.
Keep in mind that resentful, depleted adults don’t make good thermostats—an important technique I covered in my recent article, Tension at Home from COVID-19? Be a Thermostat, Not a Thermometer.
Managing Self and Relationships
During this pandemic, I expect others will regress, and I lower my expectations. Not only are we multi-tasking, we just don’t have the hours in the day to get it all done. Our emotional resources are depleted by increased stress. In a heated moment, I can choose to ignore the ineffective behavior (within limits) that comes with the difficult feeling being expressed. Hopefully, when I need it, this kindness will be reciprocated. When heads are cool again, I can talk with my child or spouse about my experience of them with the intention of repair and bringing us closer.
For example, a pre-teen might regress and ask to sleep in bed with her parents. As the parent, I can let her share my bed and brainstorm with her the next morning a list of self-soothing techniques she can try going forward.
As another example, a generally irritable or anxious adult can be expected to struggle with mood issues during this time. He will need to communicate about his self-care needs to manage lashing out. If any of these behaviors become too disturbing or disruptive to the family, I would recommend a consultation with a mental health professional. (Destructive behaviors such as verbal and physical abuse, instances of self-harm, or suicidality require immediate intervention—call an emergency number, hospital, or the police for you or your loved one’s safety.)
It is easy to remember to pick up infants and soothe them by rocking them and speaking softly. However, with a teenager or with a grown up, we sometimes forget that the same processes would also help: touch, proximity, a tender voice, and waiting until tempers have cooled to address a challenging activity or topic.
As an adult, seek out what soothes you. It is your job to meet your own emotional needs—not your spouse’s responsibility to guess what they are and how to help you.
High-pitched voices, empty threats, physical withdrawal, and exasperation won’t make anyone more efficient or make a person realize their limitations. These behaviors make people anxious and in the process wire in a higher emotional temperature in their brain—the fight-flight-freeze response—making them less likely to tap into the more sophisticated functions of the brain (such as collaborating, adapting, problem-solving, and planning) that rely on cooler temperatures. If you want a positive outcome, initiate with kindness, compassion, and openness.
Given the level of stress in most households during this pandemic, having a cool head and open heart may happen in fits and starts. Setting the intention to be our best self can require considerable reworking of personal behaviors and family dynamics. This pandemic is requiring us to up our game and become much better at managing ourselves and our relationships.
Key Elements to Achieving Nurturing Relationships
1. Get to know yourself.
Learn what you need to do when your heart closes to get it to re-open. Find ways to soothe yourself when you feel overwhelmed. Continue to adapt in flexible and responsive ways to your own needs. Accept that each day you may have a different need and feeling to take care of. This is what makes you unique. You can only be a better version of yourself. You cannot keep yourself from needing or feeling things — you can try but these efforts are exhausting and self-defeating.
2. If once you fail to keep your cool, try again.
The most important thing may not be what you do in the moment, but how you recover from mistakes. If you are unable to stay calm and get agitated in the heat of the moment, go back to your loved one when you are both calm, apologize for your behavior and talk about how you and he felt at the time. Parents are powerful role models. When you model apologizing with the aim of repairing the relationship, you build trust with your spouse and teach your child that they can do so without losing face.
3. Learn to set limits, ask for space, and engage in self-care to preserve your own sanity and have the resources to attend to your relationships.
Adjust your expectations based on what you know you can do without getting irritated or resentful. Your own resentment, annoyance or frustration are the best red flags that something is wrong and you have given more than you can give. The answer is to revisit how you got there. What compelled you to give what you do not have? How did you talk yourself into becoming a martyr? Setting clearer limits, expecting cooperation and collaboration from everyone in the household, expecting kind behaviors, and adjusting your schedule for self-care can all contribute to reducing your impulse to overdo.
4. Don’t sweep issues under the rug.
Once you are calm, you can come back to any issue or event one on one or in a family meeting.
When you get stuck, reach out and get professional help to improve your communication skills and relationship processes. A mental health professional can help hold you and your partner so you can learn to function better together to face the changes and challenges hand-in-hand.
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