MANAGING FAMILY STRESS DURING COVID-19

managing-stress

by Dr. Renae Norton

How is your family managing stress?

I am seeing a lot of families right now who are really struggling with the complexities of being back under the same roof again. It’s one thing to be together on holidays, or school breaks or even vacations. It is another thing altogether to have your children move home, with no job, no money and sometimes dismal prospects as to whether or not they will have a job when the COVID 19 pandemic is over. You may also be facing uncertainty about your job if you are the parent.

Of course as a parent, you want to help, to make life as easy as possible for your children in their time of need. You want to be there for them, and let them know that you believe in them. Just beware of your good intentions, especially if you have the urge to rescue them.

In transactional analysis, we say that “If you enter as the rescuer, you will exit as the victim or the scapegoat.” In other words, your best intentions may backfire and damage a relationship that is not only under pressure right now, but is very important to you. As a parent, you become the victim if you start to feel taken advantage of, even when you unintentionally invited the behavior by falling into old patterns of doing too much for your child and expecting too little.

Likewise, you can become the scapegoat, if you try to rescue them by recommending solutions to their problems and the solution just happens to fail. Now, you have unintentionally set yourself up to be blamed.

As the adult child, you may not be accustomed to living by any but your own rules and it can feel infantilizing or even embarrassing to have someone else dictating your behavior, even if you recognize the fairness of it.

There are ground rules for managing stress that can really help you avoid these and other pitfalls. Here are some of the basics:

I. Establish the Boundaries and Clearly State Your Expectations – This is True for Both Parties

The worst thing you can do is be unintentional about this new phase in your relationship with your child/parent; in other words, if you just sort of let it happen organically you’ll be more likely to fall into old ineffective patterns. I think the assumption is, “Well we lived together before, we can do it again. What’s the big deal?”

It’s a big deal.

Often both the parents and the adult child have very different expectations. The parent expects the adult child to abide by a set of house rules, usually without stating the rules, like get home before midnight and police the area so the next person does not have to pick up after you to use the kitchen/bathroom. Whereas, the child expects to have the same freedoms they had living on their own, with the added benefit of having someone to do their laundry. After all that’s how it was the last time they visited and that’s the way it was when they lived there.

A patient of mine said she came home at 3:00 a.m. expecting everyone to be asleep and even though she was super quiet, her father was waiting up for her and asked her where she’d been. She was astonished that he was up, but even more astonished that he thought he had a right to ask her that question. He, on the other hand, was astonished that she was out so late for “no apparent reason” and for not letting anyone know where she was or what time she’d be home. Turned out, he was the most angry because his wife could not sleep and would not let him sleep because she was doing what she always did when her daughter was out, waiting for her to be back home safe and sound….LOL

So this is where stating the house rules is so important.

Here are some good examples:

  • Let people know that you are going out and when you will be back and if that changes, let people know what your new ETA is.
  • Clean up after yourself (EVERY TIME) in the kitchen and in the bathroom.
  • Do your own laundry.
  • Ask before you take it and put it back where you got it.

I strongly recommend having a Family Meeting, when adult children move back in, to come up with an agreed upon set of house rules. It covers who does what in terms of chores, cooking, grocery shopping, mowing the lawn, who pays for the “extra” wi-fi services, who parks their car in the drive (garage) and who uses the street, who walks the dog and so on.

Once you have agreement, everyone signs off on it. Some families even have fun with it by making a penalty jar so that if you mess up, you have to cough up a buck or two, which buys that weeks pizza, or you draw out a “special projects” card (cleaning the gutters/organizing the garage) that you get to do because you dropped the ball.

Here is an interesting factoid: According to the American Time Use Survey, parents of at-home 18- to 31-year-old children spent about eight extra hours a week on housework. I don’t know about you, but that’s enough extra work to make me cranky! [1]

Another thing to get good at is the use of “I” messages instead of the “You” message (which is always experienced by the receiver as accusatory.)

For example use:

“I am not comfortable with your boyfriend sleeping over. It creates a problem for us with your little sister.”

Instead of:

“You were inconsiderate and disrespectful when you invited your boyfriend to spend the night without asking us.”

For the adult child, let your parents know if their advice is welcome or not. When you present a problem or a worry that you have, they may assume that you want their advice and offer it unsolicited. Hint: You may first have to decide what it is you do want. Do you want coaching? A shoulder to cry on or a sounding board to bounce an idea off of but not necessarily input or a reaction? Or are you looking for input? If you are, what kind of input? Advice, feedback, perspective? Figure it out and be clear about it, or you may get a whole lot of nothing, or a whole lot of something you don’t need and don’t want.

If you are not clear, you may get unwanted or unneeded advice.
Know that it is ok to ask for advice, but it’s also ok to ask that they not jump in with advice every time you stress out about your situation. Sometimes we just want to vent and we do not want to be rescued.

II. Reframe the Nature of Your Relationship

It is very hard not to fall into old patterns, especially the bad ones when you find yourself in an old and very familiar situation. Intentionally establishing a new status quo is the only way to go. I recommend using a new frame of reference to help keep the demarcation between the old parent/child relationship and the new one in the forefront of your mind.

One that I think works really well is to treat each other like your best friend. Would you expect your best friend to pick up your bath towel or replace the toilet paper roll for you? Probably not.

If your best friend was dating a skank, would you volunteer your opinion? Not likely. Even if s/he asked you? Probably not. Well do not do it with your parent/child either.

Sometimes we over-share and in so doing, unintentionally invite people to weigh in. So if you do not want to hear what your family member thinks of the person you are dating, hold back a little bit. Let your friends set you straight, it always seems more loving when they tell you what an idiot you are being than when your parents/children do.

In general, boundaries are very important. If you are the parent, resist the temptation to over-do it. If your kid’s car is out of gas, it is NOT your job to fill it up. What if they weren’t living at home? They’d manage, right?

If you are the kid, knock first. Show respect and consideration. Again, treat your parent like a friend. Try to think of yourself as a guest in your parent’s home. Even though you are not, and it is still your home, if you frame it that way, you will likely show more sensitivity to their needs.

Have some compassion for them. It is a huge adjustment to have people living in your home after years of being child-free. The more grown-up you seem, the less they will worry about you. The less they worry about you the less likely they are to nag you. A bonus!

III. As a Family, Be Open to New Activities and New Family Rituals to Help With Managing Stress

In the time of COVID-19, many families are finding new hobbies that they can do together. The old one was always going out to eat. Blah!

Games and puzzles are coming back strong….this is a good thing. Some of my patients have started book clubs with their parents, another good thing. Or binge-watching TV series together as a family. Fun!

IV. Don’t Get Too Used to the Luxury of Sheltering At Home as it Can Undermine Your Confidence

I have noticed that many of my patients returning home are beginning to see themselves as “kids” again in the sense that suddenly they are not sure if they can “make it” on their own. Even though they know this situation is temporary, they start to lose confidence. When that happens, it can become a slippery slope. This is especially true today with all of the uncertainty that COVID-19 is causing in the US economy.

If you are the parent, this is when you will be the most vulnerable to rescuing your child and filling out that application for him/her. Don’t do it. If they ask, review their resume, but do not write it! It sends the wrong message and actually makes them feel even less up to the challenge themselves.

Parents, please understand I am not saying that you do not offer financial, emotional or even practical advice, since children whose parents do offer such advice have been shown to have clearer goals and more satisfaction in pursuing them. [2] Just don’t do the work for them.

But when you do offer advice (especially if your child is asking for it) do it quick and dirty, don’t do it over and over again…..they hate that. One of my patients told me “My dad thinks that breakfast is a huddle and he is the coach. Every morning, with dad calling the plays and me feeling like I have to affirm how brilliant each play is…I really hate coffee now.”

For the adult child, get out of the house. DO NOT SPEND THE DAY IN BED! (Unless you want to completely drive your parents up the wall.) Meet with friends at a local coffee shop that has outdoor seating and work on your resume. Stay away from FaceBook, nothing worse for the old self-esteem, and hang out on Linked-In instead. Network, connect, put yourself out there.

If your room at home is still a shrine to your high school accomplishments, box those baby and teenage memorabilia up and make the room more adult-like and calming if possible. Think of it as a hotel or hostel, a temporary place on the road to your real home in your real life.

V. Have a Plan for Moving Out

The parents of my patients who get the most wigged out are those whose children do not seem to have a plan for their future or for moving out. If you are the adult child, you have to come back home with that plan in your head even if you cannot execute it yet.

It’s ok to start small and take baby steps. Just keep moving. Maybe you do an unpaid virtual internship that will help you get a job. Maybe you finish up some course work online or you volunteer for an organization that needs virtual participants until the danger passes that puts you at an advantage when the job market opens back up for that company.

Be creative. Check out the companies that are innovating with virtual services. Lots of companies are hiring people to do telephone support/sales.

Go out on your own. For example, you can teach English to Chinese children for $22/per hour….I’m just saying. Think out of the box.

Everyone, you’ve got this!

If you, or your family could use some help with managing stress during Covid isolation call Dr. Norton at 513-205-6543 TODAY or fill out the online contact form below!

[1] American Time Use Survey
[2] Karen Fingerman, PhD, professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin

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Copyright The Norton Wellness Institute – All rights reserved

Privacy Policy and Medical Disclaimer

Materials contained on this site are made available solely for educational purposes and as part of an effort to raise general awareness of the psychological treatments available to individuals with health issues. These materials are not intended to be, and are not a substitute for, direct professional medical or psychological care based on your individual condition and circumstances. Dr. J. Renae Norton does not diagnose or treat medical conditions. While this site may contain descriptions of pharmacological, psychiatric and psychological treatments, such descriptions and any related materials should not be used to diagnose or treat a mental health problem without consulting a qualified mental health care provider. You are advised to consult your medical health provider about your personal questions or concerns.


Follow us on social media:

Use the website search function to search the blog for past articles.

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Eating Disorder Pro Logo


Copyright The Norton Wellness Institute – All rights reserved

Privacy Policy and Medical Disclaimer

Materials contained on this site are made available solely for educational purposes and as part of an effort to raise general awareness of the psychological treatments available to individuals with health issues. These materials are not intended to be, and are not a substitute for, direct professional medical or psychological care based on your individual condition and circumstances. Dr. J. Renae Norton does not diagnose or treat medical conditions. While this site may contain descriptions of pharmacological, psychiatric and psychological treatments, such descriptions and any related materials should not be used to diagnose or treat a mental health problem without consulting a qualified mental health care provider. You are advised to consult your medical health provider about your personal questions or concerns.