Coping with COVID19 Isolation for families and individuals

It is difficult to think of the psychological impact of the COVID-19 pandemic without considering all the ways in which it is impacting our society.  The closed or struggling businesses, the fears of sickness, isolation, personal and medical supplies and resources, cancelling travel and stranded travelers, the images of the creeping wave of red spreading on projection maps and of course the closing of institutions such as universities and k-12 classes.  The daily news flashes:  conspiracy theories, shelves emptied of food at one store, and the insane fascination of people with toilet paper!   The cost is all encompassing and impacts our health, economic well-being, family and social realities, and our mental health and even our behaviour.  I wanted to focus on one aspect of these changes:  ways to minimize and dare I say even benefit from isolation for families (though in writing this I had families in isolation in mind, many aspects of this blog also relate to individuals).  

In the past few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to talk to many families and ask about their challenges and triumphs in dealing with social isolation.  Parents and teens are struggling with finding the right balance between safety, productivity, emotional health and appropriate limiting of certain freedoms which till now we took for granted.   For the most part, I have been impressed with people’s resilience and ingenuity in implementing a “new norm” in a very short period of time.  On the other hand, most people remain very uncertain about how long these measures will remain in effect.  Having a realistic timeline ahead of embarking on a difficult task can be a very positive protective factor that can reduce stress and frustration and improve resilience.  I think at this time it’s important for families to think about a timeline in months, not weeks.   In finding the right guesstimate, I find listening to daily federal and provincial projections useful.

So we are all home together, now what?  Parents and their young teens are staring at each other suspiciously across the vast chasm of their living rooms and wondering what to do with each other all day long.   Along with the many creative new family plans, I’ve also seen family members isolating from each other in their respective rooms.  Ships passing in the night?  We can do better!   First, some concepts to keep in mind: 

It’s important to realize that human beings are for the most part social beings and creatures of habit and this crisis is challenging both tendencies.  Those who have traditionally been very good self-motivators, who are organized, and natural leaders will adapt faster in coming up with new ways to work, play, and live.  On the other hand most of us rely strongly on external structure to organize and even motivate ourselves and for us adapting may take longer, and some may find themselves lost altogether.  It is important for family members with the traits that I mentioned to step up and be leaders in the same way as CEO’s are stepping up in corporations to provide leadership, structure, direction, and hope.  Like any good leader, do so in consultation with other family members and by listening to their concerns and ideas.   

To foster new HABITS create daily schedules for everyone.  What most people don’t realize is the positive role that routines and structure plays in our emotional well-being.   School and sports closures have particularly impacted teens’ social needs as well as taken away the main sources of structure in their lives.  Socialization ranks higher in teen values than many “adult” values.  Remember the profound lyrics of Twisted Sister (winner of many profound lyric awards in the 80’s):  

Teacher: “Stand up and tell me: what do you wanna do with your life?” 

Student:  “I wanna Rock!”  

Ironically, for many parents of my age, we can now relate to both sides of that exchange! 

If you thought your teens were obsessed about their knowing what their friends were doing on a minute by minute basis before when they saw each other all day at school; well that anxiety driven drive is only going to be much stronger now.  Most teens I’ve talked to today are not particularly worried about getting sick, but they are very worried about not seeing their friends.  Parents should expect higher levels of tension in their children and teens caused by lowered activity levels, socializing, and daily structure.  These tensions if not identified and addressed can lead to family conflict as well as rising mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.   

Well enough talk, let’s get to my tips to families on how to stay positive and healthy.  Let’s pause and think.  There’s an opportunity here to see each other in a new light, communicate like never before, share our concerns, and help lighten each other’s loads.   I should state that some of these ideas have come from my own clients and I encourage you to add ideas to this list.    

Here’s a list of activities you can try to do together.  A rolodex of fun?  Sure, why not.  It’s cold and dreary out there, we deserve it.    

  1. Family meetings:  I know, I know, the dreaded family meeting.  The bane of parents and teens alike.  That’s because the old family meetings were often focused on what the kids were doing wrong and need to change in their lives.  To a teen, being called to a family meeting is akin to being called into your manager’s office to talk about your work improvement plan.  This is not that kind of family meeting.  The family meeting I’m proposing is about community, support, communication and planning.  Use the meetings to hear everyone’s challenges and triumphs for the week.  Try to come up with creative solutions to the struggles family members are facing and use the information to set up new family plans and structure for the week.  Keep the meetings short and useful, I suggest thirty minutes for most families.  In fact, how families can run family meetings is a great measure of how healthy or unhealthy family communications are in general.   If you can learn to run a successful and productive family meeting now, you’ll notice a ripple effect in improved family dynamics and functioning in many areas long after this crisis is over. 
  2. Daily Schedules:  As discussed above, family leaders should be in charge of creating daily schedules for everyone, but do so collaboratively and use the family meetings to set up and evaluate the plans.  Don’t be afraid to adapt and change schedules through input you receive from each other.   Be mindful that some people are very good at organizing and enjoy following schedules while others are much more spontaneous and operate better through inspiration and creativity.  Be flexible.  A schedule could be a detailed list of hourly tasks including breaks etc. or it can simply be a list of daily goals with lots of flexibility on when and how to approach them.    I remember fondly my own father’s attempts when I was in grade twelve to create detailed study plans for me.  I dutifully filed his meticulously made charts in file folders in my room where they remained hidden from view and awareness.   You can always evaluate and respond to how well the plan is working during your weekly meetings.  The trick is to discover how each person best operates and then create a system that keeps them focused and allows them to measure progress and adapt if needed. 
  3. Limit your news/media time:  We are all anxious and curious about what’s going on.  But don’t fall into the habit of checking every feed and update out there or you’ll end up an anxious mess.  Stay informed about what’s happening locally and globally by watching important updates at select times during the day and then tune out.  Remember: where your focus goes your emotions will follow.  So if you read worrying news all day long, don’t be surprised if you’re constantly scared and anxious. Create a positive space for yourself by choosing positive things to focus on during the day.  Similarly, make sure you don’t just talk about the virus every time you chat or talk with friends.  Remind your friends and family of the same.  Most importantly try and identify and avoid fear mongering and opportunistic sites that try to gain popularity by spreading conspiracy theories.  They are just benefitting from making you scared and anxious. 
  4. Movie night:  Turn the traditional movie night into an occasion to learn about each other’s worlds.  Give each family member the choice to pick a movie representing their generation, or just something they really like or relate to.  You can set your own criteria, and that could be half the fun.   Have the person who chose the movie stand up and give a blurb to the family about why we’re watching that movie tonight.  Popcorn and drinks?  Absolutely! 
  5. Music night:  Similar to the movie night, have each person choose five songs that represent their generation, or that they really like or relate to, or choose your own criteria (five songs to take with you if stranded on an island, five songs to work out to, five songs to …., you get the idea).   Make some popcorn, dim the lights, gather around and have a listen.  The chooser gets to explain why those songs are so relevant to them.  Disco balls optional. 
  6. Online (enter social theme here) night: Social apps allow us to gather and have activities without leaving the house.  Search the internet for different apps that may suit your needs.  Apps such as Netflix Party allow you to watch a movie or TV show with friends while chatting and commenting, Livestream games while you chat with friends with Discord, be like the Japanese and host On-nomi (the online equivalent to hanging out at a bar) parties on Zoom, Skype, Facetime, etc.  Here are some theme ideas:  Wine tasting, book club and coffee, Movie or stream show reviews, community business support groups, game nights.  Set the mood, turn on the fireplace, No virus talk allowed!    
  7. Nature walks:  As Canadians we are blessed with open space and nature in ways that many others are not.  Take advantage of this by going on family walks while observing social distancing, avoid areas with lots of people.  A client told me yesterday that their dog has never enjoyed so many walks!  I hear and am seeing people take to this past time more than ever before.  While out, take the opportunity to practice mindful meditation.  Take deep breaths, smile at the sky and the trees, and notice the sounds and sights that often go by unnoticed.  Ok, I see you crossing the street as you see me coming to maintain social distancing; but smile and wave to those you meet on your path as you do so.  We are all in this together and nothing is as contagious as good will. 
  8. Family and friend competitions:  Competitions are motivating and fun.  Set up challenges with friends and family across various domains (social, business, academic, physical).  For example track number of positive statements uttered per day within the house on a whiteboard, challenge friends to see how far you’ll get on school assignments per day, set up family fitness challenges with inputs from everyone, etc…  One more idea which I’ll have to credit my wife with (and which I’m not looking forward to): Have you seen the YouTube series “hot ones”?   It’s a show where celebrities answer interview questions while eating increasingly hot chicken wings; great fun to watch, not so much to participate.  You and friends can order the sauces online and host your own “hot ones” theme party using the social apps mentioned above! 
  9. Family Learning Challenges:  We learn from different sources and ways and have such varied interests from fashion to history to entertainment to science and economy.  As families we rarely cross interests, especially across generations, and this can be a great opportunity to change that.  Set up a challenge where each family member must pick any topic of interest to them, research it, and give a five-ten minute presentation (audio visuals optional) at the end of the week.  Rotate family members to be the teacher of the week.  Set up the presentation time ahead of time and remind everyone (especially the teacher) as the date approaches.  Apples for your favourite teacher?  Why not. 
  10. Family baking and cooking:  From cookies, to bread, to lasagna and mac and cheese to homemade gnocchi.   Why not have each family member pick their favourite, look up recipes online and bake and cook together?   As Virginia Woolf once said: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” Or as Julia Child once said: “A party without cake is just a meeting”. 
  11. Jigsaw Puzzle with the family:  There’s something very Zen about sitting with a challenging jigsaw puzzle.  Activities like doing a jigsaw puzzle focus your attention and are a great way to stop thinking about worrying thoughts for a while.   Dust off that old 1000 piece monster and gather with family.  Combine with the family music night or after the family baking night above. 
  12. Backyard, and dining room camping:  Have a tent and a battery lantern?   Set up a tent in your backyard, combine with the family baking above and bring some Smores.   For young children bring their favourite books and turn into a reading night with lots of blankets and pillows.  Have older kids?  Impress them with ye old campsite scary stories from your own teen years.  Try to incorporate activities that interest different family members that may fit well with the camping concept. 
  13. Family stargazing night:  Everyone my age can identify the small and big dipper, and some can even manage Orion the hunter, Cignus the swan, and Cassiopeia… but can your kids?  The new generation is spending more time looking down than up.  Learn a few fun facts about the dimming Beatlegeuse (no not Michael Keaton), and did you know that that red star in Orion’s belt is actually a nebula where stars are being born?  All you need is a clear dark sky, a warm jacket and blanket, and some hot cocoa.   
  14. Family Fashion Show:  For the fashion minded, don’t neglect the treasure trove that is your closets and chests hidden in the attic or basement.  Those colourful scarves and wide ties and jackets and fabrics can be combined in combinations ranging from the hilarious to the inspired.  If you’ve been to the Science Centre you’ll remember the little fashion section for inspiration.  Then arrange the runway with music and lights and surprise each other with your creations! 

Obviously not all these ideas will appeal to all family members.  You don’t all need to participate in every activity.  Only some of you may be into the baking and others may be into the jigsaw puzzle.  Try to pick activities that most are into and make it fun.   I encourage families to add their own ideas below so others can benefit. Only rule: Be positive.