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How Not to Kill Your Family During a Lockdown

Social psychological research tells us how to stay sane when shut in together.

Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

A few days into everyone in her family staying at home, my sister requested a blog post on, “How not to kill your family during lock down.” So here it is.

  • Stop fantasizing about how perfect your time together should be. While optimism is great, fantasies are not. If you imagined you and your family would share endless laughter together and every moment would be a Hallmark movie, the reality is probably not living up to your imagination. When we fantasize, we focus on unrealistic outcomes. We fail to recognize potential roadblocks or plan for them. We feel like the fantasies should just happen, so we put in less work to actually make them happen. This happens when I take a vacation—I imagine this perfect time with my family and then vacation is never quite as perfect as I imagined it would be. What turned out to be some of my favorite vacations were ones that I didn’t fantasize about because they ended up exceeding my expectations. So, lower your expectations and then do these other 8 things to help you get closer to that fantasy you started with.

Create Structure

  • Set reasonable goals. It’s easy to fritter away time right now with endless days at home (It’s only 7:00 am and the internet already taught me that pineapples are berries. You’re welcome). Setting goals is motivating, provides structure and control, and counters your unfettered fantasies by helping you create real, actionable tasks. Each morning, create a short list of 3-5 tasks you’d like to accomplish that day. Make them small and actionable. And if you can, turn them into implementation intentions. Rather than saying “exercise for 20 min.” Say “go for a 20-min run after lunch.” The more specific you are about how you’re going to accomplish the goal, the more likely you’ll get it done!
  • Create a routine that lets you be in the present moment. We all mind wander. We think about work while we’re playing with our kids and worry about dinner while answering emails. These thoughts seem harmless, but people tend to be less happy when they mind wander. Working from home could make mind wandering even worse as people try to do it all, all at the same time. To combat constant mind wandering and distraction, create a routine that let’s you concentrate fully on important tasks for at least part of your day. After two days of feeling like I was half-focused on everything I was doing, I created a schedule for our family that includes reoccurring blocks with 1 hour of “play time” and 2 hours of “work/learning time.” So far, having this structure has helped me be more present and engage in less mind wandering. Knowing that I have work time set aside allows me to focus on my family during play time, and giving my child some undivided attention during play time helps her work and play more independently on her own during work time.

Deal Constructively with Negative Moments

  • Give each other the benefit of the doubt. More time together means more opportunities to get annoyed with each other: Who left the milk carton in the fridge with only a sip of milk in it?! When we’re feeling stressed, it’s easy to turn little things into big things and see malicious intent where there was none. To save yourselves from killing each other over a carton of milk, create a rule that everyone will give each other the benefit of the doubt and assume the best, rather than the worst. Maybe they didn’t realize how little milk was left in the carton? Or were you worried about a serious milk shortage? Couples in happier relationships tend to do this—they make “relationship-enhancing attributions” for their partner’s bad behavior by assuming it was something about the situation, not something about their partner. Couples in less happy relationships do the opposite: They assume bad behavior is just who the partner is.
  • Take care of yourself – sleep, exercise, drink water, and eat well. Everything is easier when we feel good. In my own research, people report fighting less and have more constructive conflict conversations if they slept better the prior night. When we get run down, we’re less able to regulate our emotions and are more likely to overreact to little things. Other research shows that people are more aggressive toward their spouses when they have lower glucose levels. Exercise is also a great way to boost mental health. With everyone in such close quarters, there's no need to add fuel to the fire by getting tired, hungry, and run down. Instead, make one of your daily goals health-related.
  • When things get heated, take a break. When there’s conflict, don’t be afraid to put a pause on it. John Gottman forced couples to take a 20-minute break during a marital conflict in the lab and found that heart rates returned to baseline levels during the break. Couples were then able to have more productive conversations when they resumed their discussion. The trick is that the break cannot be spent ruminating about the conflict. You must take the time to do something positive and relaxing. The couples in Gottman’s study read magazines. You can read a book, take a walk while listening to happy music, or watch some funny Youtube clips. Even better—use the time to give your partner the benefit of the doubt or try to take their perspective. Here is Gottman’s advice on how to take an effective break.

Create Positive Moments

  • Express gratitude. Humans adapt, even to the good things in our lives. At first, we might really appreciate being with our family. The time together feels novel and special. But within a few days, we’re used to it and it’s easier to see the nearly empty milk carton than the empty trash can that someone took out without being asked. To combat this hedonic adaptation, we must make a conscious effort to see and appreciate the good. I once had couples report on something nice their partner did for them that day. At the end of the study, several participants noted that they’d started looking for good things their partners did so they’d have something to report on, and doing so made them more appreciative. Make it a daily goal to say thank you to someone in your family. After all, the more appreciated we feel for the chores we do, the more we want to do them. The key here is authenticity: It’s about paying attention and capitalizing on genuine good moments, not saying thank you because you feel forced.
  • Make yourself laugh. Negative emotions narrow our focus. How much of your mental energy is going toward the pandemic? To broaden your focus and inject a little positivity in your life, find ways to make your family laugh. Laughter is a great way to diffuse conflict and create positive shared memories. When is the last time you actually had a good laugh? If it’s been a while, try making “watch something humorous” one of your daily goals.
  • Document this time. We tend to underestimate how much we’ll enjoy reliving ordinary, everyday moments. A pandemic is not an ordinary, everyday event, but being shut inside means our daily lives might not feel worthy of documenting. Record your daily life right now, even if it feels mundane. Someday you’ll want to look back on this time and remember how many days in a row you wore your fluffy purple bathrobe. You can also use this time as a chance to relive prior everyday moments with your family by looking back at old pictures and videos.
More from Amie M. Gordon, Ph.D.
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