The dramatic realities we face with COVID-19 are a wake-up call that has the potential to make us much stronger and better adapted to confront the host of other undeniable existential threats coming our way
For almost all of us, our families have become ground zero. Most of us have never lived in a war zone, so dealing with the peril of our personal mortality and the fear of losing our loved ones has never been this intense. And if our families are weathering this crisis with the additional threat to economic survival, our need to understand the best ways to support each other is urgent.
The advantage of being hyper-aware of our own mortality, as we are now, is that it gives us an opportunity to let it inform the values we want to enhance. It often evokes that classic aspiration of people who are dying, always wishing they could have done things differently, like saying “I love you” more or taking more time for themselves for contemplation. It is a reason why people who participate in extreme sports activities like climbing Mount Everest always talk about the spiritual and mental attainment realized from the experience after facing the probability of death while braving every step towards the summit.
This is a confusing time for many with CDC guiding that we all must keep 6-foot distancing and wear masks, and yet most of us are seeing in many parts of the country that people are not wearing masks and not even in many cases keeping the distance. Clearly adding to the difficulty of how families cope with this is the contradicting messages of readiness to reopen. Families and children may be seeing that some states, cities and families are going about their daily lives as if COVID-19 is no longer a threat, and are confused about what to do. It is quite clear that unless there has been a reduction in confirmed cases for 14 days in a row, quarantining is a necessity. This means that we need to wear masks, and only go out when it is for a necessity. If we have 100% trust in a family or friend that has practiced the same degree of quarantining, we can in these rare cases allow ourselves to restore ordinary closeness.
I emphasize that there needs to be a series of questions, especially for those that have the tendency to be on the looser end of the guidelines.
We need to ask:
- Has everyone that you’ve been with practicing the same restrictions as you?
- Including, immediate washing of hands after handling packages?
- When you go shopping, have you kept 6-foot distancing from everyone in the marketplace, and when you are near the person who sells the goods are you paying attention to not be in their line of breath or air when you check out?
- Is there a weak link in your family or friendship system where someone is questionable?
- When you’re outside are you making sure that if there is a wind that you are giving more distance depending on the wind’s direction?
Those who follow the guidelines can restore these very selective friends and family to include inside their quarantine.
The very interesting irony is that those that are the most cautious and listening to the CDC guidelines strictly are often overly cautious. That might work out well for a few months, but most of us that have strictly followed all of the guidelines of the CDC or more can afford to start to include those that they trust completely that have followed the same. It is ok to drop the guidelines with those family and friends that you have complete trust in, and you have just gotten in a habit of quarantining from everyone. This mental health aspect can often be missed, because of an excessive need for safety and can cause extreme separation, and unnecessary suffering. This is especially true as the virus continues on in the next year. Each of us is going to learn how to bring those we trust and who have been diligent into our spaces to optimize the balance of safety and our human need for contact. This is the ideal mixture of intelligence, prudence and intimacy. The irony of being excessively safe needs to be balanced with our mental health.
The Opportunity for Families
Likewise, I and my close colleagues have been working extensively with many families that are seeing a surprising silver lining to this very difficult situation. First and foremost, they are experiencing a greater bond of intimacy because of a newfound sense of mutual consideration and a deepening maturity on the part of both parents and children. Wearing a face mask and self-distancing is not just about protecting self and family but a lesson for children in being protective of the greater world. It is showing us a different pathway for family life than kid-centric self-centeredness, expanding to a caring for others and the new, changed world we are entering together. Perhaps when the Covid-19 danger has subsided, this new awareness can be transferred to the kind of global shift needed to better address global warming and other issues. In some cases, I have brought it into family sessions and found great receptivity. This can be an important opportunity to be prouder of your kids than you ever thought possible. They also can earn a greater confidence, self esteem and trust in themselves. In the meantime, as loving parents and grandparents, we can use this time to help our children grow and learn to be more empathetic, considerate, capable of a deeper love and remarkably better prepared for the world they are coming into. For many, this crisis may likely be the most frequent time members of a family have stopped to express to one another the need to be protective of each other, to express gratitude and love and create this healthier sense of consideration of others. So many families are discovering, almost as a touching evolutionary leap forward, how kids are much more capable of absorbing these levels of self-care and sensitivity to the whole family than they ever imagined.
Here are some tips on what we can do over the coming weeks to look back on this difficult time not only as a time of positive formative shift for our family but also for the greater world:
First, embrace this time without the daily routines of job, school and social activities as a chance for self-development for each member of the family. Encourage one another to contemplate where we want to make changes to our thoughts, actions and expressed feelings to live in a more sensitive way toward each other. Stimulate discussions in family meetings with a climate of openness to feelings and a caring for all of those feelings. Use visual communication technologies like Zoom, Facetime and Skype to include family and extended family members who are geographically apart.
If you are in a state or city that has reopened its parks, beaches and restaurants follow CDC guidelines.
Engaging Younger Children
Engage younger children to understand how the whole world is having a hard time and help them explore and ask questions about how they could help. More specifically, children are likely to have anger and anxiety about the immediate deprivation of not being able to see friends, especially if some families are allowing this more than others. This is also layered with deeper worry about the chance that parents may die, or they themselves might get sick. As parents, we need to help them know that it’s natural that we’re going to face situations that we hate or are not ready for—and it is far healthier to acknowledge these feelings and talk about them. They are likely to get mad at us, staying in a bad mood or angry funk for extended periods of time. We need to help them understand that the virus is not something that is in anyone’s control, and nothing is going to change for the better by staying angry. This may require repetition 100 times to deepen the understanding and hopefully with great tenderness. Try guiding them to question themselves (often repeatedly for reinforcement for younger kids), “How can I stop fighting when I can’t have what I want and think about what I can do to make it easier for myself and my family?” This may seem like a lot to ask to your young kids as we know it’s hard to do for ourselves. My experience and again those of close colleagues in working with kids is that often times they are more capable of doing this with guidance than we are. This focusing on the near future for realistic actions and attitudes is teaching both them and ourselves not to get lost in an unknowable future. This is a profound life guidance that can endure for the rest of our lives if we really understand the endless potential benefit. This sensitivity gives both our kids and ourselves a chance to see our inner world better and to consider alternative ways of responding in the moment or near future.
A New Reality For All of Us
As parents we also need to tell our children how extraordinary and rare this situation is, how this kind of local, national and global problem is something that we have never faced before in our lifetime. It would therefore make sense that government officials and communities are having a difficult time managing when and how to reopen. “This time asks that you mature faster than you would otherwise. You will have to learn greater understanding that we are all going through a lot. This will not only help you now but will inspire you to be more caring towards other people long after this crisis is over.”
For older children, it is helpful and an unparalleled opportunity talk about others who are in far greater need that they may encounter in their towns and cities, and what tangible ways they might be able to be helpful in matters such as homelessness, global warming, public health and poverty in their future. For teens and young adults, this discussion can expand to impacting the greater world, including social activism, politics and philanthropy at any level. It might affect what job or career they choose because they may want to find a meaningful way to help. Explore how we can express more generosity and gratitude in our thoughts and actions. Include in our use of visual communications technology the opportunity for our young people as they learn to reach out to their friends and peers. Our children’s ability to share what they’ve learned can be a powerful help to others beyond the immediate family circle. This is so crucial at this time that we draw on and create new strengths that can be used in a future that may be dependent on our children experiencing this evolution.