Remote Family Therapy During COVID-19: Families Are Experiencing A Loss Of Their Typical Everyday Life And Routine
While doing remote family therapy over the phone and video chat such as Skype and Zoom these past few weeks, I’ve been talking to families that have been thrust into a new life–schools closing, both parents working from home, nannies or sitters ending their care or moving in, homeschooling, classes moved online, kids moving home from college, and activities of daily life like family trips, play dates and other outings cancelled. Life went from “the norm” to very much not, as families have been thrown into a new mode of living.
And this is a loss for families, specifically a loss of their everyday life and routine. As a family therapist transitioning to teletherapy, I often think about how routine is emotional. The way in which we hang together, what we do in our neighborhood and how we fill our days is stabilizing to everyone in the family, including kids, teens, adult children and parents. Living during the spread of COVID-19 changed how we do family. As a culture and as families, we’ve never been as self-contained.
And this loss of the old routine is also emotional–it’s anxiety-producing, unknown, scary, frustrating, sometimes wonderful and sad. Not only is it essential that families recognize this sudden shift as a loss, but it’s important that families grieve this loss together.
Talk Through Grief As A Family Without Getting Bogged Down In It
One way to grieve the loss of the typical day-to-day that I’ve been suggesting to my remote family therapy patients is to talk about it with parents, kids, siblings and potentially, grandparents who can no longer visit or help. A family can acknowledge what they miss about basketball practice, school friends or even, work, as well as the family’s disappointment about not going on a family trip that they were all looking forward to.
It’s important that families not only talk about what they’re missing, but how they’re feeling. And I mean all of it: the tired, the cranky, the hope, the joy, and the pain of leading during a time when there is mostly little leadership or anything certain.
If a family pauses to verbalize this loss, it means they aren’t just kneejerk reacting to it. Instead, they can connect around it. Both parents and kids can help drive this conversation, especially if adults listen to kids. However, a parent may need to set the framework of the conversation. For example, say, “We’re now homeschooling. That means I’m both your parent and teacher. You can miss your teacher. Let’s talk about her and write her a letter.” Or a kid might explain that they’re really sad that a softball game or birthday party was cancelled. Parents should allow them to sit with that loss–in anger, dismay or sadness–without trying to make it better or change the tune. Let them feel their feelings and then, figure out what they might need or how things can be done in a new way.
Families Need To Lead Around Grief To Acknowledge What Has Changed
Especially with coronavirus, bargaining–one of the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, sadness and eventually acceptance)–has been a big thing: “We can still go out for dinner,” “We can go to Florida if we drive,” “We can go out for a slice of pizza still,” etc. In some respects, this is natural. But this also avoids grieving as a way to process and accept what is and what we need to not do for now, as well as what is needed for ourselves and our kids (even adult kids).
In my remote family therapy sessions, I’m pushy about strong leadership. Strong leadership means you are the rock as the parent. You know the family will get through this stronger, more in love and knowing way more than everyone did before. You take on the change not by denying it or trying to gloss over the pain, but acknowledging: “Yes, this is hard, but as a family, we’re taking it on.” You might make mistakes or learn as you go, but strong leadership holds the family in love and care, as well as gives them structure to have their feelings without letting them flail or feel untethered. This leadership is also emotional–not shutting out emotions, but acknowledging them so they have a place to live and heal. It also means action. Let your kid cry over a changed class and then, figure out a way to do it together, find one online, or write a teacher and ask if they will do Zoom.
Creating New Traditions After Grieving This Loss of Normalcy
In addition to grieving the loss of how your family used to operate, finding new traditions is crucial while processing the anger and sadness. It helps the family feel together and held. There’s an acceptance in knowing that this is all new and that’s okay. If your family is living in containment, you’re going to spend a lot more time together with little outside distractions. Even just a daily video chat with grandparents, a family pizza-making night or a family reading group where you actually sit and talk about the books together as if in school can be different ways of relating, both logistically and emotionally, through a new activity.
Developing these new traditions is more than just finding something to bide the time. They can help emotionally too. For example, cooking a meal together as a family is something everyone can see from start to finish and have control over (when everything feels out of control) by following recipes. There is love and emotion behind making something for everyone that everyone plays a valuable role in making. You can even use cooking (making a pizza vs. your typical Saturday dinner out) to talk about loss as a family without living in denial about these changes, while still being active. Family walks are also useful new traditions emotionally. They’re an activity in which all members can talk about their feelings when walking in the morning or evening, or doing activities like bird watching.
By developing new traditions, you’re connecting as a family around both loss and building something new, which you may need to do over and over again. COVID-19 has not simply altered our families’ lives in a way in which we can anticipate what will keep changing. It’s a moving target, and one in which we’re tasked with remaking how we live as we go along. As a family, you may have to grieve one loss of routine after another or the continual loss of life changing. However, by grieving as a family, you can mourn each loss as it comes, recover as slowly as the family needs and then, create from that loss.