It is said that sometimes “familiarity breeds contempt.” While we all hope for chances to enjoy our family while under the State or Federal “Shelter in Place” orders, the reality is that families are under a great deal of stress and this can make arguments more likely between spouses as well as parents and children. Not only has the Coronavirus pandemic demanded we all quickly reinvent ways to accomplish work and school from a distance when possible, it has greatly changed many families’ income, not to mention some workplaces not being able to survive long closures.
All these changes put us into a cycle of powerful emotions described by the late Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D., using the acronym DABDA. These phases can occur with any major life events or transition such as moving, divorce, death of a loved one, or even a stay at home mom returning to the workforce. Therefore, this cycle can be triggered by life events that cause grief due to being such a large change. Also, these stages can proceed in a non-linear manner, with various stages being recycled or reprocessed as we grieve certain losses.
Stage one in the DABDA cycle is Denial. In this phase, we resort to our defense mechanisms to avoid or put off for later, the need to confront major changes in the here and now. This phase is often followed by anger. Anger is a tricky emotion and it is known to be a handy mask for “weaker” or more vulnerable emotions such as loneliness, hurt, guilt, or shame. When pumped up with anger, we feel more in control fueled by stress chemicals, such as adrenaline, that are even more powerful stimulants than caffeine. This causes physical changes in the Central Nervous System known as the “Fight, Flight or Freeze” cycle. In this state, the logical part of the brain, known as the Prefrontal Cortex can be overtaken by the emotional impulse to argue. It takes practice and maturity to achieve some detachment from a fight. One idea for practice is to create the immediate need for a break to avoid entering this “fight or flight” cycle at the same time as a family member. The break could be washroom, need to do a pressing chore, or script such as, “I almost forgot! It’s time to walk the dog, let me take care of that now.” After taking a short break we can deepen our breathing and try to get more perspective on the situation. Often, this allows us to use humor or in a sense be able to hit a “reset” button with our family member. If we keep getting triggered into angry exchanges with certain family members, the issue can get harder to resolve without the help of a trained therapist.
The next phase of the grief/change DABDA cycle is Bargaining. This can be useful when family members lose focus or motivation to help with chores or to give a caregiver a break with the care of pets, children and elderly when needed. One example of bargaining in practice is to temporarily lock up all family members cell phones to encourage more interaction. Then, children can earn a WIFI password on a daily basis for 30 to 60 minutes of screen time for TV/movies/gaming or social media on a shared public screen. Examples of 3 tasks to earn daily WIFI password include: 1) 15-30 minutes exercise or physical chore such as vacuum or mop 2) read for 60 minutes or educational board game or hobby, and 3) clean room or do common area cleaning. This plan, where parents control cellphones and chargers will also have the added benefit of not allowing children to keep odd hours if electronics are allowed in their bedrooms during the stay at home period. Some families find the Bargaining phase works best for them by relaxing certain rules while keeping the structure of a daily or weekly routine in place. Substitute similar activities, such as if a child’s team sport is on hold due to COVID-19, they could still play volleyball or soccer, jog, walk, or ride their bike for an hour.
Take advantage of this time to learn to cook new meals, rediscover fun hobbies or encourage children to develop independent living skills if they are over the age of 10 or if under the age of 18 to practice a skill related to a career interest. For example, if your son wants to be a policeman he can reach out to the local police non-emergency number to see if an officer would chat with him for 10 minutes over the phone; or, he could then watch a TV show about it and look on library websites. Some places, such as Naperville Public Libraries have a large section on Vocational issues where sample tests are available to get certified as a health technician, job in construction, cosmetology, etc. To avoid the family lingering in the Depression phase, set specific and realistic small goals each day and week during this time. The more we allow the time to be unfocused or patterns like oversleeping to set in, they can lead to more conflict, once these become bad habits.
Finally, a family can reach a sense of controlling what they can, during this crisis such as great self-care and trying to help the community when able, such as donating to a charity or giving blood.
By doing this, it is easier to reach the final stage of the grief process, Acceptance. In acceptance there can be peace, a greater awareness of which fears are rational or irrational as well as the ability to reframe. For example, instead of being “trapped” at home, we can look at it as being “safe” at home.
During the COVID-19 crisis, a bit of relief came when The Illinois Department of Public Health ordered all mental health insurers to cover telepsychology therapy using video chat or by telephone. Call Dunham Counseling today at (630) 799-0100 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to learn how we can help you and your family better cope with ‘shelter in place’ during this trying time of the Covid-19 pandemic.