Over the past two years, many of us have faced major life changes, personal loss, and seemingly constant stress. What can we do to stay resilient? How can we help our households find their balance? In this article, we focus on family dynamics, emotional regulation, and building resilience during a crisis.
To address these topics, we spoke with Kim Allen and Adria Shipp Dunbar, two NC State experts on how we can maintain our emotional balance while supporting those around us. Allen is a published author, podcaster, co-founder and leader of the Family Life Coaching Association. She is currently the Acting Associate Dean and Director of Academic Programs at NC State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Dunbar’s work focuses on developing technology for counselor training and supervision, and promoting digital health among students. She is an assistant professor and doctoral program coordinator in the counselor training program in the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development at NC State.
This article is part of a Q&A series in which North Carolina state experts address issues related to COVID-19.
The abstract: We often hear about the importance of emotional well-being and mental health. What does it mean to be emotionally well?
Kim Allen: I tend to think of the word resilience when I think of wellness. Obviously, life has been particularly difficult for many of us over the past few years. With constant change, fear, and loss, it can be hard to be resilient. However, when we are able to find the positive and have hope despite the difficulties, that is mental well-being.
We know that resilience is about the ability to bounce back, and this is different for children than it is for adults in some ways, and similar in others. Resilience and emotional well-being come from both nature and nurture. Although there is a genetic component, we can all learn resilience skills such as emotion regulation and calmness. If we can focus on building resilience within ourselves, that also helps our children. Caring and loving parents are protective factors for children. Learning to manage our emotions and build our resilience helps our children.
TA: Is it easy to make emotional regulation a habit? Are there any practices that come to mind?
Allen: Anyone can learn the skills to regulate emotions. You know the old adage “breathe and count to 10”? It’s a technique for regulating emotions! We hear a lot about mindfulness, and regulating emotions is closely tied to mindfulness. This means being aware of our senses, noticing physical changes when we begin to feel strong emotions, and noticing our thought patterns during times of high stress. When we start to feel tension in our neck or think the worst is about to happen, we can regulate our emotions by slowing down, breathing deeply (which actually releases calming hormones), and slowly counting down. ‘at 10, breathing deeply. for the countdown.
AT: There is so much information circulating that it is difficult to know what one does not know. How do you avoid feeling overwhelmed by the news cycle?
Adria Shipp Dunbar: One thing that worked really well for me at the start of the pandemic was listing three “wins” for the day. We were home with two preschoolers and a newborn while juggling remote work and remote school responsibilities. Reflecting on what was going well, or what we were grateful for, definitely helped my mindset.
Recognizing who we are in times of stress and our behavioral patterns as responses to stress can also be very helpful for us and those who live with us. Kendra Adachione of my favorite podcasters and authors, talked about it in an episode of The Lazy Genius. For her, she had to create a plan and talk about every minute detail and logistical decision to regain control when her family tested positive for COVID-19. Other people can clean the house, make lists, start a new journal, rearrange childcare, plan future trips, or spend time outdoors. For me, a walk outside or a barre class plus a hot shower renews my sense of calm and control enough to help me overcome my typical stress reactions.
AT: What can parents do when they don’t have all the answers to the questions their children are asking?
Allen: Gosh, I totally identify with this one. Before my teenagers could be vaccinated, I worried so much and just didn’t have good answers for when they wanted to be with friends. That’s what I told them, “I know this must be so frustrating for you. We just don’t have good information available for me to make the decision that you are with your friends. Empathizing is key – letting kids know you understand their feelings and validating their frustrations can help kids know we’re all figuring this out.
AT: When speaking with others, adults as well as children, how can we avoid putting our anxieties into the answers we give?
dunbar: I am counting on Janet Lansbury Podcast to help me with this one. There are a episode I have heard many times about death and death from children, which helps me to remember to be honest and concrete with children when giving them answers to difficult questions, but also not to not water down my answers. Children listen and watch for any indication that we may not be telling them the whole truth or that we are toning down the information for their own good. Often, when we are actually trying to shield children from harsh realities, we can instead increase their anxieties around an issue.
AT: It seems like a lot of people these days are struggling with guilt: parental guilt for choices you’re forced to make that you never considered; social guilt, both for going to events and not going; etc How can people deal with these heightened feelings of guilt?
dunbar: Grounding ourselves in our values can really help with this one. We had family norms, or boundaries, before the pandemic started to help us maintain boundaries with some of the decisions parents tend to feel guilty about. For example, we don’t often attend birthday parties unless they are for close friends and family. We made this decision a long time ago and we are sticking to it. It might be a bit of a minimalist approach to parenting, but it works for us. And the values of our family are not the values of all families. Deciding what is right for your family and grounding yourself in it can help avoid guilt and decision fatigue.
Disappointment can be difficult, especially during a pandemic, especially after years of restrictions on social events or activities we enjoy. I also recommend having advance planning of what happens if plans fail due to COVID or other circumstances that are beyond our control. It can help us keep disappointments in perspective and give us space to experience all the feelings of a disappointing situation.
AT: There have been so many conversations about mental health and self-care in recent years, but what does it look like when you are primarily responsible for caring for others? How can caregivers anchor themselves?
Allen: There has been a lot of research showing that the pandemic has been particularly difficult for mums. Moms tend to carry the physical and mental burdens of family life and all that stress and work adds up and takes a toll on our health. Taking care of ourselves is essential.
As a mom, I can say that taking care of yourself is easier said than done. However, I think we can learn from the younger generations. My kids are older, 18 and 20, and they’ve really mastered self-care. My 18-year-old daughter is the first in the house to ask for a day of self-care and doing things that bring her joy. Boy, can I learn from her!
It’s not just my children. Last week, I asked my students, mostly 18-20 year olds, what they saw as a major difference between their generation and older generations. Unsurprisingly, they said it appears older generations are less likely to understand and support wellness and mental health. So for those of us with kids, especially moms, I would say we need to learn from our youth and prioritize taking care of ourselves.
AT: How has your parenting role changed during the pandemic?
dunbar: I tried to let my children take more initiative in choosing how we spend our free time. There may be times when I feel like I’m dealing with them, instead of connecting with them, which doesn’t do any of us any good. They are my barometer for how we are doing as a family.
Sometimes we need more time together, sometimes they need more one-on-one time, sometimes they need more time with friends, sometimes they need more structure in their days. We also had to add more systems to the house to keep everything running smoothly: a chore board so everyone could contribute to our household, a smart light to let people know when it’s bedtime, movie night weekly, an ice cream on Friday afternoon, etc. Predictability and structure have served us all well.
AT: What is a practice that could benefit the whole household if adopted?
Allen: There is family science research that examines the amount of positive interactions between family members and the quality of their relationships. There is a magical ratio of 5:1. We need five positive interactions for every negative. When life is stressful and busy and we are all tired of the pandemic, it is important to slow down, breathe and remember to nurture our relationships. It’s the little things that count here – a little hug before bed, a high-five at the end of a task or just asking the other about their day. The more positive our relationships, the better our health and the more resilient we become.