Tension at Home from COVID-19? Be a Thermostat, Not a Thermometer

Woman adjusting thermostatSpring is here. The dogwoods and rosebuds are in bloom. Birds are nesting. But the streets, restaurants, theaters, and school yards are quiet and empty. This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we will miss the shrill of laughing children running outside together, the sight of spring lovers at cafes, and other social activities.

Inside homes, the tension from the threat of illness and stay-at-home orders may be growing. Each family member has competing needs and limited resources. Each one feels the loss of the larger world and connections. More than ever, there may be pressure on family ties.

Practicing Emotional Regulation at Home

As I reach for the thermostat in my home to turn on the air conditioning, I am reminded of Dr. Gary Landreth’s analogy of parents choosing to play the role of thermostats rather than thermometers within the family.

The COVID-19 stay-at-home requirements have meant a vastly different level of activity in my family’s household of four (plus dog) that is challenging for all of us. As outside temperatures grow, inside our house, the heat is on!

The multi-tasking of us as working parents (home-schooling, cleaning, cooking — all tasks that could be shared with a broader community before), now rests on us in limited space. Plus, we have full-time jobs that need to be attended to as businesses grow anxious about the economic outlook. New demands and limitations inevitably collide as we find a rhythm for the medium-term, until the restrictions are eased in the weeks to come.

Meanwhile, I hear myself saying “It’s for your own good! Others have it worse!” I overwork to meet the new demands of the day. And then I notice and remember… As a spouse, parent, and small business owner, I have the choice to join in with the anxiety and get reactive to the grief and uncertainty around me. Or I can choose to notice the discomfort and accept the emotions as information about the level and type of loss all of us are experiencing.

Thanks to my ability to slow down and take my own temperature (i.e. tune in), I am able to turn on a different part of my brain: the one that can make considered choices. I then take actions to reduce the emotional temperature in the house. It is the difference between being passively subjected to my family just like a thermometer that rises with ambient temperature and, in contrast, the thermostat’s ability to assess the temperature and take action to adjust the ambient (emotional) temperature.

Our brains are natural thermometers. When one person experiences an emotion or identifies an emotion on the face of a loved one, they experience the feeling as if it were their own. Neuroscientists explain this by pointing to mirror-neurons in our brains. These special neurons help us understand the non-verbal cues of others, deduce what others may be feeling, have empathy for them, and also in the process, to feel what the other person feels. We are made to be porous to others’ emotions. If one person feels an emotion, those closest to them inevitably feel it too.When I manage to take on the role of thermostat, I find a way to respond rather than to react to the rising heat in the room. 

When I manage to take on the role of thermostat, I find a way to respond rather than to react to the rising heat in the room. Just as I would open a window when the air gets too stuffy in a room, I can also help my loved one (child or spouse) regulate and tolerate their emotions by just making room for and being with them — by actively reflecting to my loved one their thoughts, feelings, and needs with acceptance and compassion. In doing so, I am not agreeing or being permissive of a behavior. I am just communicating that I “get” the other person. I become curious about the other person’s experience and withhold judgement.

In communicating that I accept the loved one’s feelings, I am serving the role of thermostat. I am offering a positive emotion the person can use to regulate themselves, like a buoy in a rough sea. I teach the child that the feelings are tolerable. I let my partner know they can be vulnerable with me. In doing so, I help them self-soothe. I am a safe, trusted person with whom they can be their authentic self. Once soothed, they can access a higher level of functioning.

4 Steps to “Being a Thermostat”

1. Know (and accept) your loved one(s).

You can provide acceptance and empathy so that you can start a virtuous cycle (and counter some of the negative effects of anxious brains).

2. Set reasonable expectations based on development, temperament, and level of stress in the household.

Anticipate issues and collaborate with others so that you can encourage all household members to express their feelings and feel understood. Adopt a collaborative approach that recognizes each individual’s unique perspective in the household.

3. Adopt a ‘being with’ attitude in moments of stress.

This means communicating acceptance and curiosity, and withholding judgement. Let your loved ones know that given what you know about them, what they are saying makes sense and you care. This means resisting trying to alleviate negative feelings and avoiding the trap of problem-solving.

4. Re-align your priorities for your family during this crisis.

The first step here is to identify your values: what gives you peace and meaning in difficult times. Then revisit your current schedule and make physical space for these priorities.

By creating a positive atmosphere at home, you convey to each person that they are worthy of love, that they too can make positive choices to preserve connections, that they can manage a crisis with compassion for themselves and others.

© Copyright 2020 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Elizabeth Gomart, LPC

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