As we try to avoid spreading a strange new illness, we find ourselves spending a lot more time together at home. Emotional health skills are more important now than ever. How well we meet the challenges ahead depends a lot on how we learn to support each other.
Home life, specifically family life, is the first place most of us learn about emotional health skills. These are the skills we draw on in any situation. We may need to adapt them now, as we learn to face new challenges as a human family sharing the same planet.
We’re bombarded with alarming news about health, our climate, and the economy. Everyone’s schedules are disrupted. Many of us are finding new ways to keep working and learning. On top of this, we face physical, financial and emotional health challenges like never before.
How Parents Can Support Emotional Health as a Family
Parents can do a lot to strengthen emotional wellbeing at home. Emotional support is something parents can model and lead.
When you see the same people every day, it isn’t always easy to tell when someone needs support. Everyone is feeling some level of anxiety or stress. Some family members may not look anxious at all about the challenges we are facing. But that doesn’t mean they’re fine without you.
An open attitude toward difficult emotions can do a lot to help everyone in a group or family feel supported.
Emotional Security Requires Other People
Many parents were taught as kids to assume it’s their job to handle their emotions alone. It’s true that self-soothing is each person’s responsibility to a degree. But no one can manage ongoing hardship, confusion, worry, doubt, anxiety or any stress well alone.
Some children learned that expressing hard-to-handle emotions wasn’t allowed. We got the message it wasn’t okay to upset others by being upset ourselves. But when we are unsure, humans are wired to look to those around us for courage, support, knowledge, and strength.
Children depend a great deal on one or two important people – usually parents — for help managing everyday feelings.
As adults, many people choose a partner to help maintain a sense of belonging and support each other emotionally.
As parents you can be a great help to your child’s emotional health skills in small simple ways. You can do this even if you experienced less emotional support growing up.
Here are three learnable ways to support your family’s emotional health.
1) Make it okay to ask for help
Children need to know it’s absolutely okay to ask for help. You can be clear that there’s no shame in being scared. Let family members know you don’t want anyone feeling they have to carry endless anxiety alone.
Parents may be tempted to assume their kids already know this. But it’s important to be clear that you’re accessible and open.
If you want to know how loved ones are managing, ask. Tell them you want to know how they’re doing whether or not they feel overwhelmed.
2) Notice each other, and invite talking about it
- Is someone spending more time working or being busy than you expected?
- Is a loved spending so much time gaming or being online they are going without sleep, food or hygiene?
- Are your kids fighting more than usual?
- Are your loved ones quieter than usual?
- Is someone eating, drinking, or behaving in a way that worries you?
Anxiety happens. No one likes to face it. But that doesn’t mean we should pretend to ignore it.
In fact, learning to face difficult feelings is the best way we know to ease them.
It’s very common to feel trapped with difficult feelings. Sometimes we feel stuck. Loved ones may keep troubles to themselves because they don’t know what else to do, and could use a kind word to open up.
Phrases to gently invite conversation:
“I notice you’re working a lot.”
“It seems like you’re hardly coming out of your room.”
“You seem really upset with each other lately.”
“I saw all the cookies are gone and I’m worried about you.”
Partners and parents can also model self-reflection:
“I am finding it hard to turn off the computer and go to bed at night.”
Take time to have a conversation about what you notice. It helps to offer a willingness to accept what you find. The point isn’t to judge each other as “unhealthy” or “bad.” The point is to invite connection. It’s about being present (accessible, responsive, and engaged).
Show what you notice in a straightforward matter-of-fact way. This approach helps your loved one see that they matter, and their happiness and wellbeing is important to you. Emotional support comes from a sense that someone who matters to you cares about you. Your child, spouse, partner, or loved one needs to know you notice them.
3) Take small steps to face anxiety
When we address anxiety in therapy, our goal isn’t to avoid triggers. We face anxiety, slowly and gradually. We gently look at reactions that don’t serve us well, and learn to respond to anxiety in healthier ways.
When you challenge yourself to do the thing that’s hard, go slowly. We want to face a triggering situation one tolerable dose at a time. Explore ways of breaking it down in a step-by-step way.
For children, homeschooling may be a great opportunity to address anxiety little by little.
Homeschooling can allow a child to try new things in ways that a typical classroom setting can’t offer. For example:
- You may have a book study to break down a topic that may trigger worry for your child as a whole
- You may explore games or experiences where you support your child a lot at first, and gradually reduce your role
- You might try a new activity to build confidence and enjoyment
- You might try activities suggested by the professionals helping you, such as a physical therapist or psychotherapist.
If Stress Interferes With Living, Ask for Help
There is a lot you can do to help yourself and loved ones manage stress in uncertain times. But if anxiety is interfering with everyday life, it’s important to ask for help. Even in times of social distancing a skilled therapist can help you find and develop the resources you and your family need.
The flip side of vulnerability is emotional support. These two emotional health skills go hand in hand. When we are vulnerable with those we trust, we can open up. When we’re open, we have the opportunity to learn how best to help each other. This is the essence of our ability to strengthen each other. This strength is something we’ll all need for the challenges ahead.
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