Relationships under pressure during Lockdown
Updated: Apr 13, 2020
Whether you are working on the frontline, with kids being taken care of by others, or working from home whilst trying to entertain kids, or looking after kids full time, parenting during Lockdown and maintaining good relationships with our kids and partners during this time is a challenge.
As a play therapist, my client work came to a grinding halt with no warning and without proper endings, and I have returned to looking after (and now teaching during term time) our four kids full-time. James, my husband, is now working full-time from home and we are all adjusting to this new normal. But over the last few days I have been struck by how I would love to continue to help support families, children and young people during this traumatic time. I am able to continue the CPRT (Child-parent-relationship-therapy ) work that I am doing with a family at the moment over Zoom, but I wondered if there was more that I could do.
So I am going to start writing again. I am going to take an area of relationships and bring a few thoughts that will hopefully be helpful to others during this time. I am not putting myself out here as a perfect parent or wife, not by any stretch of the imagination. And like all of us, I am learning all the time. But I do want to put my training into practice in a way that is accessible to others. So here goes...
Let's start with our first key concept - my personal favourite, unconditional love. In Play Therapy we call it 'accepting as is' (Virginia Axline) and it is the commitment to accept our clients, as they are, not allowing their behaviour or attitude or past mistakes to affect our commitment to accept them.
In counselling it has been termed 'unconditional positive regard' (Carl Rogers) whereby the counsellor commits to regard the client in a positive way regardless of their behaviour, their past or what the client may talk about in sessions. These are important as they build the strongest basis for a relationship - one that is unconditional.
But in parenting and marriage (or other life-long relationships), which is what I am talking about today, we call this unconditional love and it is vital for emotional and relational health. Unconditional love allows us the freedom to be our true selves. There is no need to hide behind a mask when we know that we will be accepted as we are - no matter what. Unconditional love is like the rich soil that a plant is grown in, it feeds the roots and gives strength to them as they grow and encourages the growth of the plant.
So how can we foster unconditional love in our homes during this challenging time. Here are a few of my thoughts and ideas:
Stress and trauma disrupt our mental health.
I love the concept that Dr Dan Seigel has pioneered about mental health. He explains it in his book with Dr Tina Payne Bryson, The Whole-Brain Child. He suggests that we can imagine a 'river of well-being' and that when all is well we are floating along in our canoe, in a good relationship with the world around us. We can be flexible, adjusting to changing situations, we are stable and at peace. But we sometimes get too close to one of the two banks. One bank is chaos, where we feel out of control and we are being thrown around by the rapid moving water, we feel confused and in turmoil. On the other side of the bank is rigidity, the opposite of chaos. This is where we impose control on everything (and everyone) around us. We struggle to adapt or see things from someone else's view point. We can not compromise, be flexible or negotiate. Perhaps you can recognise time that you may have spent close to those two banks over the last month. I certainly can.
During our second week of Lockdown, James had woken early and was getting some jobs done. He is highly focused and motivated to make good use of his time. He had emptied the washing machine and was taking clean washing upstairs. But then I came downstairs. I saw that he had started to take the clean washing upstairs ( I prefer to sort it downstairs), I saw that he had put a wash on (I prefer to keep control of that), and I reacted in a controlling, annoyed way. I basically accused him of thinking that I wasn't doing a good enough job of looking after the house as he felt the need to get involved. He graciously backed away. But I reflected on this in light of the 'river of well-being' and recognised that I was stuck in the bank of rigidity and was attempting to control those around me. This is like our defence against the lack of control that we are experiencing in our Locked down lives. But it damages our relationships with others. You may have found yourself losing it with your kids (chaos), where we become overwhelmed by our lack of control and get pulled into a total lack of control, or needing everything to be perfect (rigidity), where there is too much control, sometimes we zigzag back and forth; but our aim is to get back into the middle of the river and attempt to remain flexible and adaptable.
Our kids experience the very same thing. And during this 'traumatic' uncertain time, you may notice them zigzag between chaos and rigidity more regularly and so understanding this can help you cope with it. When our emotions rule over our logic we find it very difficult to regain control and see things clearly (again true for adults as much as children). So to end today's blog I will leave you with my go-to intervention, which is to slow down our breathing. You can do this with you child when they are in a state of panic, anger, frustration or emotionally overwhelmed. When we slow down our breathing we are taking some control back from the part of our brain, the amygdala, which is trying to help us to escape danger. We can soothe the amygdala by letting our body know that we are not in danger. Our brain basically says, "How can she be breathing so slowly if we are in danger, it must have been a false alarm!", and so our body begins to relax and our thinking brain comes back on line and we start to see things more clearly and float back into the middle of the river.
So what has that got to do with unconditional love. Well when our kids, or our partners, or we are spending time stuck on one of the banks, we can practice compassion and unconditional love. Self-compassion involves us accepting ourselves and our mistakes and believing that we are worthy of love and acceptance. Compassion for our kids and partners looks like loving them in the midst of their mess. With our kids we are there to guide and support them as they clean up their mess and as we help them float back to the middle of the river. For our partners it may look like recognising the stress that they are under, and reaching out with acceptance and understanding.
I hope that today's blog has been helpful. We are all experiencing trauma at the moment, we are experiencing different levels of loss and masses of uncertainty; so be kind to yourselves and each other as we adjust and find hope together.