Climbing the walls? How to cope as a family when you can’t escape each other

Last month, as the reality of life under lockdown began to sink in, I asked my family if they had any particular concerns. Without hesitation, my eldest, who is 16, asked: “Why aren’t you normal?” This was day one of no school, and she was right. I wasn’t normal; nothing about this situation was normal. I really struggled to find any sort of equilibrium for a long time. What helped us was implementing a “submarine” routine, whereby the day is strictly portioned up, as it is in the locked-down conditions of the submariner, starting with a 7am reveille on weekdays. And in among the fear, panic and worry (most of my family is in Italy, and my mother, like so many elderly parents, thinks the rules don’t apply to her) there have come pockets of calm, new normality and even small shards of joy. But still, the questions haven’t stopped. These are the three that readers have been asking me the most over the last few weeks.

How can I hold space for my own worries regarding Covid-19 without it affecting my children? Is it possible to avoid lying to them that everything is fine, and let them know that I’m worried, without overwhelming them?

It’s a huge task. I think we have to accept it is going to affect them, but we can try to control how much. In these extreme times, we’re going to get a lot of things wrong as parents. When you are stretched emotionally, it’s hard to be even “good enough” at times. This is a huge learning curve in acceptance: of ourselves, others, the situation.

Child and adolescent psychotherapist Rachel Melville-Thomas (childpsychotherapy.org.uk) explained to me that we need to recreate the “‘pegs’, the natural markers that children have in their usual life, such as getting to school, having break time, eating lunch, talking to friends. We all need, especially now, a predictable cadence to the day, and by dividing it up into a routine, we also help reduce anxiety.” Broken down into chunks of time, life seems less overwhelming. This, in turn, will give you pockets of respite.

Routines are formulaic, but bring predictability, and, crucially, you don’t have to feel guilty for saying: “Ask me that at lunchtime.” I know that if I don’t “hold space”, as therapists call it, it can affect the emotional wellbeing of the whole family. No one can be constantly interrupted without going mad.

Melville-Thomas explained that even young children can get into the new pattern of the day and will learn to keep (some) questions to specific times; after all, they do this at school.

As to how not to overwhelm them, Melville-Thomas said, “Don’t dismiss their concerns with, ‘Don’t be silly’ or ‘Don’t worry.’ That doesn’t work. ‘Tell me more’ is a great question to ask children, as is ‘Tell me what you know.’” It also buys you thinking time.

“Very young children don’t need to know more than ‘There’s a very bad flu going round that makes people quite sick, so we’re doing our bit to stop it spreading by not going out and by washing our hands,’” she added. Always remember the golden rule with children: listen to the question and answer just the question asked, factually, calmly and age-appropriately. It’s OK to say you don’t know. You don’t have to have the answer to everything: no one does at the moment.

Older children and teenagers will be able to see or hear the news, but they might hide their worries. Melville-Thomas recommended asking them, “How are your friends dealing with this at the moment?” Coming at it via a third person may open up a bigger conversation.

“Whatever restrictions you had on their phones and social media before, keep them,” she says. “And we all react more badly to news at night so, ideally, no screens in their bedrooms.” Everyone needs a news break. But I would also stress that children won’t have the usual emotional support of their school friends, so encourage phone/video calls if they want them.

How do I approach talking to my parents about what to do if the worst happens?
It’s never easy to talk about serious illness and death, but we must remember that talking about it doesn’t mean it will happen. If it does, knowing what a loved one wanted will bring you focus and peace.

Kathryn Mannix, a palliative care doctor and author of With The End In Mind: How To Live And Die Well, said, “Having these conversations is less upsetting than not having them and then finding you needed to.” She suggested that one way in may be to talk about it as something that will affect all of you, not just elderly family members. Do this either on the phone or a family Skype session. “You can say, ‘We need to talk about this for, say, 20 minutes, then we can talk about something else.’ But approach it by saying, ‘If any of us were to die, or get seriously ill, what do we want?’”

Things to think about, Mannix said, include: “If I can’t have the funeral that I would like, what should my family do as a form of commemoration once such things are allowed?”

The last conversations that Mannix sees on deathbeds come down to three messages: I love you, I’m sorry, or thank you. So if there are people you want to say these things to, do that now. I know this is quite scary, but as Mannix says, “When we are dealing with people at the end of their lives, the messages [they give to those left behind] are so important for people to carry into their grief and bereavement.”

Another thing to talk about is what to do if any of us become very seriously ill. Mannix explained: “To decide whether a ventilator is the right treatment, intensive-care practitioners will look at a person’s ability to recover. They may ask loved ones if the patient would agree to be on a ventilator; if they would want to be saved even if the quality of life [afterwards] is not one that they would value. The doctor needs to make a medical decision partly based on what’s possible but, because we won’t be well enough to discuss it, our families need to know what matters most to us.”

On a practical level, make sure family members know how to use a smartphone/Skype and have a tablet, charger and cables (all name-labelled) to use if they have to go to hospital. You may not be able to visit in person, and if you want to stay in touch, there may not be enough tech in wards to go round.

None of this is easy, Mannix admitted, but it may open the door to an important conversation we have all avoided until now.

The bereavement charity Cruse (cruse.org.uk) is a great resource if people are bereaved, and has lots of useful, Covid-19-specific information online.

We live in a small house. How can we all rub along together for the next however many weeks? We’re spending way more time together than usual and clashing over parenting styles.
A routine, as detailed in my first answer, is really important. You may even have to implement a bathroom rota for ablutions. What we have to remember, says family and couples therapist Chris Mills, is that “captivity is not natural for us. So if we are reactive or stroppy, it’s the tensions created by being forced together. We’re designed to nest together and come together, but also to have freedom of movement and interaction with others.”

Mills recommends looking for “ways of keeping a distance, of having headspace” from other members of the family (I can’t stress enough how important boundaries are in these enforced conditions). Consider either taking your state-approved daily exercise separately if you can, or having time apart in different areas. Under strain, we can become highly volatile, and may explode over things we would previously have laughed at or brushed aside. Even talking about this, and acknowledging it, can help (saying sorry also really matters).

Another useful thing to try, advised Mills, is, if possible, to ask “what each family member wants to achieve that day”. This allows some flexibility within a routine, and takes into account daily moods and rhythms. Some days, for example, your partner may feel more able to take on responsibilities than you; on those days, maybe you can negotiate more “you” time.

As for differing parenting styles, Mills advises, “In this situation, nobody’s good or bad. It’s not about one person winning or losing, but you do have to find a way – at least while on lockdown – of provisionally agreeing so that there’s a system in place to get through this. It’s about being pragmatic, not philosophical.”

You both have to recognise that, really, you just have to get the job done, whatever that job is: the children learning, or eating. We don’t have the luxury of pontificating over parenting styles at the moment.