Covid-19 and Families: Recent past-present-and beyond

The reality is that Covid-19 pandemic is affecting all families. It is interesting to be aware that change to such a strong unpredicted event within a family system does not happen automatically. The Webinar on ‘The effects of Covid-19 on mothers and families’ organized by Women’s Brain Project (WBP) and where I contributed as one of the speakers, started this conversation. Here I would like to highlight particular characteristics of responsive families and the process set in motion. This awareness is helpful for families to continue growing ‘beyond the pandemic’.

Before proceeding it is important to keep in mind thatthe term ‘family system’ refers to any family configuration.

Reactions to change in families:

As a rule, one can argue that families do not look forward to change and strive to maintain homeostasis as much as possible. However when the family system is about to introduce some ‘newness’, in the context of the pandemic coming from the outside environment, this automatically exerts a force on the family system (conscious or unconscious) and puts pressure on the system to react.

When this happens, the family can react in different ways:

1 To ignore it and continue not to recognise the need for change.

2. To become aware of it but continue to refuse change.

3. To become aware of it and respond to it.

In the first two options, there is a huge risk involved as outside forces continue to exert pressure on the system. The risk is that the family system, unconsciously, might develop symptoms on a cognitive, behavioural and psychological functioning and family members would often fail to identify what is set in motion. Symptoms, such as highly expressed emotions between family members, emotional distancing, conflicts, increased levels of anxiety, mood swings as well as risks of collapsing or developing severe mental health issues may unfold. During the webinar, one of the questions asked was if adults, in particular women, are addressing ‘the sharing of load’. This could be a potential conflict trigger within the family system if families fail to acknowledge the increased load at home as one of the effects of Covid-19.

On the other hand, the families who stop to attend to the outside signals impinging on the system are usually the ones who go for option three.

Characteristics of responsive families:

Families who are open to change are usually those who engage with their environment. They do not look at themselves as an entity on their own but they position themselves as part of a bigger (societal) context.

In addition, these families have clear permeable boundaries. They know who they are; where they start and finish; and allow for the possibility of being influenced by society. Their system is able to regulate how much they are able to take in to respond effectively as well as appreciate that in return their contribution influences their environment too.

Families who have previously experienced unpredicted forced change, such as the sudden death of a loved one, facing a sudden chronic illness, loss of work or a traumatic experience and have successfully worked through it may all contribute in making their systems more resilient. These families have acquired internal resources-both intra-and inter-personal ones-that help them deal with new challenges.

Process of ‘change’:

So, we can safely say that change starts with awareness. Families accumulate stimuli from their surroundings that indicate something is happening. They listen and read news and stories. As they do so, a feeling of shock or disbelief might result, especially because they lack understanding around what is evolving. The unknown instigated by Covid-19 triggered some people to formulate conspiracy theories around the virus and its origin. This is a way of dealing with the uncertainty and fear around the unknown. Whilst doing so, these families still denied the possible impact the virus may have on their country, let alone conceptualize the idea that it can affect them personally. However, the more they assembled facts and reliable data the more they appreciated that this pandemic is happening around them and even if it is far, it may eventually hit them too-sooner rather than later. At this point, is important for family members to recognize negative emotions, such as anger and anxiety. These are justified feelings at times of change.

“...irrespective of what they recommend I’m not going to rely on anyone to tell me what to do…..”

Once the family system builds a comprehensive cognitive idea of what is happening out there – knowledge on Covid-19 virus, its symptoms, its spread and its fatality rates- the family recognizes that there is a risk. Hence, it is time to take further actions. The quicker family systems are in assimilating the knowledge (on the virus as well as on possible stresses and demands) gained,the quicker they are to use it to their own advantage in moving towards embracing change.When one member of a family brings home something new about the virus situation, whether it is the mother, the father or a child and the family systemis ready to take this on, even if at this point in time not all members are in a position to react, they are however offering the possibility to work with it. Families develop a predisposition to take up the new cues sent from the environment and rather than reacting antagonistically to the proposed recommendations announced by government and relevant authorities, they related to them as protective tools -ways of preserving their family system. A new meaning emerges, that of contributing to society-at-large, in this case by lowering the infected/ death curves.

“….we follow the necessary measures in order to flatten the curve whilst keeping ourselves and others safe….”

At this point families are in a process of active engagement, as they are letting go of rituals and developing new ones. Here, conversations between the family members of a system as well those beyond are the medium through which continued responsiveness is guaranteed. Also, by doing so families find ways of letting go of old behaviours and acquiring new ones. They are acknowledging the outside forces in relation to the consideration of the family life cycle they are in.

In many ways the added emotional burden has been the most challenging and the most exhausting…….one good thing is that he has taken on the role as a home educator and I have stepped back and left him to it.”

During this pandemic, families cut off most physical exchanges outside of the home. Rather, they made space for more opportunities to be together in the same household as well as found ways of exploiting the current social media to ensure social connectedness. Parents, who are usually travelling around the globe or who contribute to the workforce, are bound within the parameters of their homes, possibly benefitting from quality time with their children. Fathers/Partners who usually carry less of the parenting responsibilities are witnessing what is happening at home, being offered the opportunity to appreciate more mother- children interactions, discovering the motivation to get involved.

“ I’m just loving seeing how a brain’s child is doing one plus one and seeing it developing…I am loving this.”

“ I now have an understanding of what really goes on whilst I am away…..oh gosh the way she does it is unbelievable…..I now hope that I won’t travel as much so I keep my contribution going.”

Mothers/Partners who usually carry more of the parenting responsibilities envy their space and time away from family duties, at the same time feeling less stressed to abide to tight schedules,enjoying their children more freely.

“….my kids and husband were ecstatic to be at home indefinitely…well, as for me. it was the opposite” “I suddenly realised that my freedom had dissipated and that this man and these two little people have invaded my space! The house was my space during the day and now there was not a single room with a door, which I could close and create a peaceful space for myself…….. I did panic a little……”

For those families who did not necessarily value the input of social media in their children’s life, they had to install the right technology in place to make sure their children have access to online schooling as well as be able to remain in touch with friends and extended families, such as grandparents. Hence, these parents/families may be grieving their once held beliefs.

Special challenge of Covid-19: Fathers and mothers who are dual earners, are challenged to think about their work-family life balance and possibly address their respective inputs as parents. Let us acknowledge that Covid-19 pandemic forced most families to juggle with the new reality of working from home while attending to the family needs and demands. Perhaps it presented women with a pronounced reality check-the inequality they suffer as they go on-being socially expected (within the family as well as from society) to carry more of the parental responsibilities. Hence, the changes being experienced are not only in terms of behaviours and interactions but also with regards to core gender beliefs.

Stability versus change:

Whilst learning to embrace these losses and gains family systems are monitoring the changes, to continue adjusting and adapting to make sure they find their ‘new grounding’, the ‘new stability’.

“…I did realize that we all needed to fall into a semblance of a routine and new normality before the tweaking was done…..I quit my role as an LSA and asked the school to have my son’s LSA better organised……….

I introduced a fresh routine of an early alarm for my kids….I talked with my husband and insisted that every day, after his work, we go for a walk as his lack of presence in our relationship was what bothered me the most……….

by week three of lockdown I started to realize how privileged me and my treasured family life are….my kids are still following school, we are safe, extremely blessed…….my perspective shifted and I felt lighter and had bursts of positivity within………Me and my husband noticed that our son is a generally happier…hardly any signs of stress related to learning…..”

They find a new balance of functioning and want to stay with it. They want to enjoy the product of their efforts. So now anxiety, once again, revisits as the ‘easing of lockdown’ threatens the new status quo and they wonder how it is going to be when a certain degree of ‘normality’ starts taking shape.

I have experienced various adaptations in life, some harder than others. I’m quite seasoned to big changes…. This time it was quite different. Now I’m not sure I’d like it to change.”

Moving beyond:

Many countries, such as Switzerland are experiencing some degree of socialization whether it is school, work, shopping, going for appointments at the hairdresser or to doctor’s appointment or meeting up with friends. There is the interplay of anxiety and relief, especially because the threat is still out there. Families have to learn to live with the ambivalence of such feelings, of wanting to move forward and learn to adjust to the new normality and at the same time wanting to be sure that they are not putting their family system at risk.This kind of awareness will help them to keep on processing the further changes that might come their way.

Families in mid-2020 are really testing their resilience. Resilience is about falling, having the ability to get up again and incorporating the suffering and move forward. At the time being, families face moving beyond Covid-19 crisis as well as maintaining existence of new dynamics. Whether they like it or not, families are challenged to continue working with change. Upon listening to the webinar, many families’ reactions I received was amazement about the process of change described as they identified themselves with the shared, could acknowledge the hard work it entailed and instilled a sense of courage. This way of understanding the family in response to change offers asystemic perspective of how families develop over time as they interact between themselves and with their environment. It is a constructive way of thinking about families.

Take home message:

As much as tendency to react to something unpredictable happening out there is usually “stay away”, “this could be dangerous”, “why should we change? family systems do need to acknowledge the initial reactions, recognize the feelings and emotions it provokes and whilst picking up further cues learn to attend to these feelings as slowly they are the source of momentum for further adjustments as they transform to more constructive emotions that allow for further growth.

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