Father and daughter washing hands

Family Under Pressure: the Connecting Power of Being Isolated Together

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“Is it through our connectedness with others that we grow and thrive through life.”

Froma Walsh

Reality may be starting to set in that our forced isolation is likely not ending any time soon. Families coming together for long periods of time is great when it’s scheduled and involves a road trip, camping, and maybe even the ocean. But when it is not elective, in your home, with no clear end date, it is expected that ambiguity and anxiety will run high. This post serves to support families through these uncharted territories, and offer a paradigm by which to orient your family in a way that can (a) create agility and re-frame family stress, (b) offer ideas for how to connect in new and meaningful ways, and (c) intentionally position your family toward growth. The goal is to come out of this with an intentional orientation toward family-level growth for the betterment of selves within the family, as a family, and for others.

Create Agility and Re-frame Family Stress

Family stress theories can lend support during these times by helping us understand how systems (i.e. families) react during stress. First, what is family stress? It is simply a disturbance in the steady state of a family’s equilibrium (e.g. normal state of function). In the case of COVID-19, it is an external pressure that is creating a disruption in a family’s internal balance. What cannot be dismissed is that all families have pre-existing internal pressures that may have been “back-burner” issues, but now under stress have reared their ugly head. During this time, it is important to know that uncertainty is expected, and right now we are all being told to overreact on purpose to influence our behaviors for the sake of a healthy world. A family’s basic structure and process for coping may need to be re-evaluated. A family’s present behavior cannot be understood apart from its history. Multigenerational legacies shape family narratives, beliefs, and expectations. These legacies influence how your family perceives disruption, and informs how individual members and the whole system reacts to stress, crisis and adversity.

Ask one another: How have we been taught to deal with stress? What did we see our parents and/or grandparents do? Do we find this functional? Do we want to find new ways? What are our family’s unique strengths and how can we build upon them?

Keep in mind: Family stress is inevitable, and not all stress is bad. One person’s stress impacts the whole. Therefore, the whole family has a chance to come to action. In other words, it is not one person’s anxiety or one person’s illness, it is the family’s anxiety/illness. Stressors are not viewed the same by each person within a family. Perceptions and narratives are just diverse as family structures themselves. Differences do not have to create stress, it can create an opportunity to pivot, learn, and re-orient toward what matters most.

Tips for Connecting in Meaningful Ways

Family meals as structured family meeting time: Frequent family meals are associated with positive psychosocial outcomes. There is no time like the present to start this as a regular routine. During family meals, have structured conversations, allow for the space to explore fears and anxieties, and refocus and end the “family meeting” with family strengths and goals for the next day, at both an individual and family-level goals.


Being connected, means disconnecting: Schedule your news intake time, and determine who gets to be a part of these information gathering sessions. For example, choose to watch only the 5pm news, and designate one person to be your “media member” who will report back to the group. If you’re a parent with young kids, only have the adults get the timely information and decide what information is necessary for your youth to hear about. Keep what serves you and your family, and discard the rest.


Create rituals: Rituals serve to ease people through transitions and times that lack predictability and familiarity. Such rituals can be morning prayers and family meditation or yoga. These can be geared toward centering and opening your day, taking a midday break, or ending your day in reflection and gratitude. Taking time collectively to reflect inward can ease anxiety and foster deeper, more meaningful connections.


Have growth-oriented conversations: Using assets-based thinking, how can you view each member of the family as a strength to be harnessed, and not a deficit to be solved. Do you know the hopes and dreams of each member in your family? Are you aware of the internal flame that drives their purpose? Do you know what brings each person joy? How, as a family, can you nurture each person’s desire to be and do better? Once you’ve established that, broaden that conversation to the family as a whole. What is the family’s desire to do and be better?

Intentionally Orient Your Family Toward Growth

Family stress theories have helped us understand how individuals within families, and families as a whole, interpret, perceive, and make meaning of stress and adversity. We’ve also learned that family perception and meaning making have a large impact on overall functioning, management of symptoms, and ability to orient toward growth. Oftentimes, resiliency is talked about as the end goal during distressing times. Resiliency in its basic meaning refers to the processes of an object, after being reshaped and stretched, returning to its normal form (e.g. equilibrium). You may have heard it as “bouncing back.” What if we took this time and chose to evaluate the structure being stretched (e.g. the family), and collectively decide to work toward new growth, not just returning to normal.

Amidst the fear and anxiety there can lie hope. It does not have to be either/or. It can be both/and. There can be hope for a better outcome and a hope for a different way of being in this world. What I am suggesting is that families can take micro steps now to work through surviving into resilience onward to thriving. A key component of thriving is to have an orientation beyond one’s self in a manner that intentionally guides one toward a purpose bigger than the self. What I am suggesting is that as a family all members can contribute their individual growth for the betterment of family-level growth. Have you ever sat down with your family to do an inventory of sorts and deeply asked:

  • “What is our family’s purpose?”
  • “Do we like the way we are presenting ourselves to the world?”
  • “When we get out of isolation, what are small changes we can make to be better for us, and for others?”
  • “What are our orienting values as a family?”

Crisis can serve as a wake-up call. Embrace the paradox that during adversity, there can be enriching growth. Commit to seeing yourself as part of something bigger. Commit as a family to raise the level of consciousness and orient as a whole to what really matters.


References

1. Boss, Pauline. (2019). Family Stress Management (3rd edition). Sage Publications.

2. Harrison, M. E., Norris, M. L., Obeid, N., Fu, M., Weinstangel, H., & Sampson, M. (2015). Systematic review of the effects of family meal frequency on psychosocial outcomes in youth. Canadian Family Physician, 61(2), e96-e106.

3. Imber-Black, E., Roberts, J., & Whiting, R. A. (Eds.). (2003). Rituals in families & family therapy. WW Norton & Company.

4. King, P. (2020). Changing Our Focus From Surviving To Thriving During Covid-19. https://thethrivecenter.org/contemplation-and-covid-19/

5. Walsh, F. (2006). Strengthening family resilience. Guilford Press.

About the Author

Stephanie Trudeau

Stephanie Trudeau

Dr. Stephanie Trudeau is a Postdoctoral Research Associate with the Thrive Center for Human Development where she currently studies the intersection of spirituality and thriving. Trained as a Medical Family Therapist and Integrated Behavioral Health Researcher, her academic expertise utilizes a biopsychosocial-spiritual lens in order to examine illness and recovery across family and social systems. She has dedicated her clinical and scholarly career toward developing a deeper understanding how families cope in the face of adversity, trauma, and grief.

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