3 Good (and Curable) Reasons Your Family is So Stressed Out

Pandemic family stress has many roots: financial insecurity, close quarters, virus fears, learning frustrations, poor communication, and inadequate resources, just to name a few. Here, learn about the three most common and dangerous family stressors — and strategies for alleviating each one, together.

Parents with Children Playing Game at Home. Flat Cartoon Mother, Father and Two Daughter Different Ages Spending Time Together in Living Room. Happy Parenthood and Childhood. Vector Illustration
Parents with Children Playing Game at Home. Flat Cartoon Mother, Father and Two Daughter Different Ages Spending Time Together in Living Room. Happy Parenthood and Childhood. Vector Illustration

Stress is not a symptom of the illness. Stress is a byproduct of our interpretation of the pandemic and it takes a toll on psychological health and wellbeing for sure. But here’s the good news: Stress can be successfully managed with the help and support of our families. I know this may sound ludicrous after several long weeks in quarantine, but as a board-certified psychologist in family and couple psychology, I promise that no virus can undo a family when its members decide to band together in solidarity.

Stress can bring out the worst — or the best — in a person. What makes the difference? How well we tap into stress-management tools — including healthy attitude, physical exercise, and relaxation strategies — how well we practice assertiveness and cognitive flexibility, and how well we cooperate and develop family communication strategies.

Stress Factors for a Family in Quarantine

The most common and dangerous family stressors right now are:

  • inconsistent information
  • length of time in quarantine
  • overload of information
  • fear of contagion
  • monotony
  • poor communication
  • fear of the unknown
  • boundary crossing
  • inadequate resources
  • parenting differences
  • job security
  • financial uncertainty

Of these, the three most stressful factors are poor communication, financial uncertainty, and boundary crossing.

Family Stressor #1: Poor Communication Skills

Families that practice positive communication express appreciation and gratitude for one another. They are able to compromise, and to have fun and laugh with one another. These families will thrive even in the worst conditions. They also use “I” statements to convey understanding, empathy, and awareness. Healthy families use I statements when expressing feelings, wants, and needs without triggering defensiveness in one another. I statements sound like, “I feel___”, “I need___” and “I want___”.

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They look for opportunities to show gratitude over the smallest of things like putting down the toilet seat or cleaning the dishes. Sounds too simple to have an impact? Trust me, when a family is in a confined space for an extended period of time, NOT doing these small things may quickly add up.

Communication Fix: Validation

When disagreements inevitably arise, healthy families effectively negotiate and compromise while listening and validating each member’s feelings. Healthy family members don’t have to agree in order to understand and convey empathy and respect; in any disagreement, their goal is to understand their loved one’s feelings about the situation and then move forward in a positive way. In other words, your living room is NOT a courtroom and your spouse and children are not expert witnesses under cross examination.

Validation is the process of learning, recognizing, understanding, and expressing acceptance of your family member’s emotional experience. In order to validate someone’s feelings, you must first understand their read or perception of the situation and then actively listen to accept their feelings.

Validation does not mean you agree or approve; it means you accept a person’s feelings, thereby helping your family member to feel understood, safe, and loved. It could sound something like this: “I may not agree that this happened at 2pm with Professor Plum in the ballroom with the candlestick, but I understand that I hurt you and it is never my intention to hurt you. I am sorry for hurting you. What can we do differently next time?” It also requires active listening skills, which means you are listening to understand not listening just to respond.

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Communication Fix: Listen and Paraphrase

Healthy family members summarize their loved ones’ words, “What I hear you saying is___” or “It sounds like ___” before discussing their feelings and needs. They confirm that their loved one feels validated and only then do they convey their feelings, needs, and perception of the situation. When explaining their perception, they focus only on their feelings and understanding of the situation; they do NOT assume their loved one’s feelings or needs, and they do not recount their perception of their loved one’s actions.

For example, after you have spoken for a short while, let your family member paraphrase what you have said. Help your family member understand your point of view. If the paraphrase is inaccurate, gently restate what you meant by focusing on your feelings. This is how you actively listen to one another — and not just wait for a break in which to respond. By actively listening, you are conveying respect and empathy, which creates an environment of emotional safety.

Communication Fix: Practice Positivity

Express your needs in a positive way rather than a harsh, defensive, critical way. Share one thing you and your family members can do differently next time. For example, “I feel frustrated when I cook dinner and have to clean the dishes. I would feel appreciated if we could find a way to share these jobs. I will clean the dishes tonight if you can clean them tomorrow night.”

These strategies will not stop families from having conflict. In fact, conflict can promote a family’s emotional growth if they have the right tools to communicate about the conflict and come to a resolution in most cases. The communication surrounding a conflict will be positive if it conveys acceptance of your family member’s feelings with affection and humor.

Communication Fix: Listen and Paraphrase

Healthy families also express affection and demonstrate empathy. Today, that means expecting and understanding the feelings of guilt, fear, stress, worry, and anger brought on by the pandemic that individuals may project onto those they love. Healthy family members may need to stop themselves before reacting to a loved one’s negative feelings. When overstimulation boils over, I recommend taking time outs — 20 minutes of separation in different areas of the house — to engage in self-soothing, relaxation exercises. It’s easier to come back and discuss the issue again in a calmer way now after achieving some emotional distance from the issue.

Family Stressor #2: Financial Uncertainty

Financial uncertainty is one of the most stressful factors pressing down on families during a crisis. This goes beyond differences in saving and spending strategies, which create discord with or without crisis. During this pandemic, panic shopping, job insecurity, medical bills, and the stock market’s volatility are all contributing to families’ mounting stress.

Financial Fix: Devise a Family Budget

Healthy families sit down together and plan a budget with the information they have available. Every member of the family should understand the situation in an age-appropriate way, and assume an identified role ahead of time. For example, if your college-aged child is home and running up a high Amazon bill, discuss this in a calm way and explain how they can help the family’s finances by staying within a certain budget.

As a family, develop creative ways to work together and define what is acceptable spending and what isn’t. Try not to focus on life after the pandemic because that is an unknown. Use the information you have at hand to work together.

If you have young children, reassure them that you are planning and that the family is safe. Ask them for their ideas on how to save and try to include those ideas in the budget. This can be validating even to the youngest child.

Family Stressor #3: Boundary Crossing

Humans are social creatures. We need one another, especially when under stress. However, we don’t need other people to solve our problems for us, which families often believe is their role; we need each other to feel less alone. We need to support one another while maintaining healthy boundaries and showing mutual respect.

During times of stress, we sometimes sabotage this need by pushing the ones we love farther away — blaming them or projecting our guilt, anger, worry, sadness, etc., when in fact we should be leaning on each other. This blurring of emotional boundaries is another issue for families in quarantine.

Boundary Fix: Be Clear and Consistent

I can’t stress this enough: Establish clear and consistent boundaries as early in the quarantine as possible. Discuss how much time family members will spend together. When you are feeling overwhelmed, discuss how your loved ones can hear that without feeling rejected or hurt. Plan traditions, create new rituals like family movie night, take turns planning meals like sharing recipes, and rotating chores, and take walks at least twice a day together for approximately 30 minutes each walk. Remember to help each other in small ways and see this time as an opportunity to learn more about one another. Also, try and be realistic in your expectations of one another when asking for help. If your child or spouse doesn’t do it right away, it’s OK to let it go. This is an opportunity to show your child or spouse trust by not demanding it get done immediately. Remember you are in quarantine; what’s the rush?

Along those line, these three little habits will make a long-lasting impact: physical exercise, cognitive flexibility, and the expression of gratitude. Adapting to changes smoothly is the marker of a healthy family. You can do this by helping one another keep things in perspective. During an increased time of stress, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s important — and during this pandemic, even toilet paper has become essential. Let’s not lose sight of how important our loved ones are to us and show them that we appreciate them by saying thank you. By creating a culture of gratitude, you combat resentment and hostility.

If your partner leaves the toilet seat up after you asked him not to, try not to crucify him. Keep it in perspective by looking at your ridiculous amount of toilet paper and remind yourself that he fought off people at the grocery store to get you that toilet paper. It’s about being grateful for the little things and being flexible so we keep it in perspective.

And it’s ok to laugh, too! We are all in this together and we will be stronger together for it.

[Click to Read: “We Live in the Upside Down Now. Grace Is Pivotal Here.”]

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