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How to Avoid Family Meltdowns During the Pandemic

Relationships will be tested as long as COVID-19 is part of our national vocabulary. Give yourself space to stay true to what’s most important.

Keeping the family peace
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

I recently attended a talk by a social-emotional learning specialist in which she laid out “3 Rs” grownups should consider when a child is having a meltdown.

First, Regulate—give the child space and time to come back into awareness of themselves, to calm down from a bout of crying or shouting, to stop the spiral causing the distress. 

Second, Relate—do whatever it takes to reconnect with the child on an emotional level, whether that’s a hug, a quiet smile, a joke or some other signal that no matter what is going on, the foundation of love and connection still exists between parent and child.

Third, Reason—only when the heat of the moment has passed and the relationship has been reestablished is it helpful to talk through “what happened,” “what could we do differently next time” or other reason-based discussions.

I noticed a fourth “R” that was missing from the list, for good reason: React. And I noticed that I was taking in the 3 Rs for myself as much as for my 9-year-old.

The truth is, grownups have meltdowns too. And as the pandemic wears on, family relationships across the generations are being tested—by close quarters or distance as well as anxiety. 

Here are some ways to temper your reactivity in favor of the other Rs and keep your eyes on the prize of family peace.

Understand Your “Buttons” and “Triggers”
Author and clinical social worker Carla Naumburg explains that every human being’s nervous system is wired with “buttons” that, when pushed by “triggers,” respond or react in predictable ways. Take some time to make a list of external stressors that consistently push your buttons. Then strategize ways to minimize exposure to those triggers or lessen their impact.

Stop, Count and Breathe
The difference between a “response” and a “reaction” can be measured in the space of just a few seconds. Practice taking a pause after you feel triggered by finding a practice you can easily access, even when you are upset. 

Strategies I like include visualizing a literal red traffic light and counting to five before I allow it to turn green; counting slowly backwards from 10, or doing a deep breath practice like Five-Finger Breath, which has the added bonus of giving you something to do with your hands. 

Forgive Yourself
Maybe you are a reactor, maybe you even came to this article fresh from an episode you wish you had handled differently. Remember to practice self-compassion and let go of any worries that you might be locked into old patterns or unable to make new choices. Acknowledge that you are cultivating the skills you need to respond with calm and patience.

After all, the pandemic isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Among all the upsetting aspects of this reality is the opportunity to slow your reactivity, to recognize that now is the time to put healthy, peace-bringing habits in place and to embrace authentically positive relationships in your family.

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