Staying Connected With Close Others Through the Pandemic

Why it's important, and how-tos for making it happen.

Posted Apr 30, 2020

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels
Source: Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

There is an astonishing new statement about childhood resilience from science: If we want children to do well under stress, the single most important thing to do is to first make sure that their major caregivers are doing well.  

For many decades, developmental scientists have focused on particular parenting behaviors, advising adults on what they should and should not do, what they are doing right, and things that they could do better.

Now, there is a different statement: Rather than focusing on how parents interact with their children, the most important thing is to make sure that they themselves are psychologically healthy. Make sure that the person who is taking care of the kids is not struggling with depression, anxiety, or high stress. 

Why? Because when we are depressed, it affects all of our behaviors. Some of us “shut down,” and so become less responsive to what others need from us. Also, sometimes, depression and anxiety can make us irritable or impatient with others. Conversely, when we’re in a relatively good place psychologically, the benefits tend to spill over in all our interactions with important others. 

What to Do? 

How do we make sure that parents—or for that matter, adults in general—have decent mental health?

The answer is exactly the same as it is for children. Adults must get ongoing love and support themselves—and especially during times of stress—if they are to “be okay." Just as children must feel loved and supported to build resilience, exactly the same thing applies to grownups—regardless of their age, education, or skill sets.  

Also, studies show that these connections are most helpful when they’re developed and maintained with people in everyday life. Good psychotherapy can be very helpful when we’re troubled, but nothing heals like love in real life. 

The benefits of such connections are clearly recognized in science. In a 2019 report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) on maximizing children’s well-being, the message is crystal clear: First, ensure ongoing support for adults, from networks of people they can depend upon, in their everyday lives.

COVID and Loneliness: We Need Authentic Connections

With the ongoing uncertainties of COVID, now more than ever, we need to be “ahead of the curve” in fostering and maintaining close connections with supportive others. Stress levels are higher than they have been in most of our lifetimes. Also, loneliness was a big issue even before the pandemic arrived.  

Here is the good news: You can set up your own support network group, and help others to do the same. And there is already good evidence that such groups can be done effectively over video-chats, not necessarily in person.

Some might wonder, can such groups be beneficial even when conducted without “an expert” to guide them? The answer is yes, and this is commonly done already! Think, for a moment, about groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (Al-Anon). They have been around for many decades. They are put together by “real people, for real people”—there are no experts or doctors running them, and there is no complex or magic “formula” that is needed.

A big reason for why such groups are so beneficial is because of the caring, empathy, and support from others dealing with similar struggles. There is great comfort in sharing with others who are kind to you, and in knowing that these people will be there for you on a regular, weekly basis. 

How to Get a Support Group Going Right Now

Psychology has produced so many how-to apps and programs that teach about taking care of our own emotions—using personal coping strategies such as mindfulness—but so few that show us how to build close, authentic relationships. This focus on people’s own coping may be partly an aspect of life in the West, given an emphasis, for example, on independence and “rugged individualism."

Whatever the reasons, there is no question that as a society, we need to move deliberately, now, on building authentic connections. The pandemic has got all of us feeling troubled to some degree, and all of us need to share our fears and concerns with caring others.

So in this post, I am summarizing concrete steps that people could take in forming groups with others they care about. These pointers come from decades’ worth of work on resilience as well as scientific reports showing their benefits. And this includes evidence of the success of groups in virtual format!  

So here’s the quick road map, or things to consider, in starting such a group.

  1. Pick people with whom you generally feel safe, and who themselves are “comfortable with being comforted." If even one person in your group is reluctant to show vulnerability, that can make all others uneasy about sharing.
  2. Keep your group to no more than six people. If you meet for one hour, this is about the right number; more than that does not leave enough time for real sharing. 
  3. Right from the start, a few things need to be clear to all members.  
  • One, this is not a psychotherapy group, but is a group of people supporting each other. Resilience rests on relationships, and that is what this group is about—staying connected in real, authentic ways.  
  • Two, this group is confidential. People will want to share some things that are deeply personal (and that is the point—to share meaningfully). So as you bring your people together, have everyone agree to this explicitly.
  • Three, these are not groups where people “offer advice." The point is simply to be heard and understood by other caring, kind people. There is great healing in that.
  • Four, once people agree on a day of the week and time to meet, you all make a commitment to being there (barring emergencies, of course), and being on time. Knowing that all are genuinely committed and will show up and share, is critical. 
  • Finally, all should make a commitment to trying to ensure that everyone in the group has “airtime." Some days, some people may need a little more time to share than others, depending on what’s going on with them. But in general, all voices must be heard. 

Once you gather your group of 5-6 members, the next step is to consider what happens when you meet. 

  • Getting started: All you need is a simple prompt, like, “What’s on your mind?” and then just share from the heart. There is no need for pre-assigned topics and there’s little small talk. The agreement is to use the hour well, getting straight down to connecting in meaningful ways.
  • If there’s any awkwardness about who speaks first in your first few sessions, you can make up some simple rule—e.g., we go alphabetically, all around! As people get more comfortable, there will be much less awkwardness and much more comfort.
  • Some days, a person might feel that they are too upset to talk about what they are feeling, and that speaking would be too overwhelming. It’s okay to say “pass” at such times. But over time, again, it’s important that all group members are heard.
  • These groups can and should include sharing of positive feelings and experiences—they are not all about sharing troubles! The rule, if there is one, is simply that people are sharing about things meaningful to them. 
  • When wrapping up sessions, it’s useful to close with some positive feelings. For example, people could share something kind that someone did for them that week, or something kind that they did for others. Another might be something that brought them hope or joy.
  • Remember, the ingredient to why these groups work is that people are coming together in sincere, genuine ways, committed to being present and kind to each other. All members feel seen, heard, and supported by others during that shared time. (If you’d like to see the kind of feelings these groups bring about, there is a PBS video clip in the References below that shows examples).

Starting a Group Yourself: Benefits to All

Resilience research shows that feeling helpful and useful to others helps us cope with stress. So even if you’re usually shy, please do think about calling your friends from high school (or now), someone in your family, a colleague from work, to join you in your group. More likely than not, they will feel good that you trusted them enough to invite them to join your group!

Also, as you start seeing and understanding how your own support groups work, spread the message. Show people in your everyday lives—other parents, teachers—how much comfort one can get by just sharing, in authentic ways. Tell them about the many years of science behind this approach. As we continue to face the ill-effects of COVID, we all need as many such supportive groups as possible, in all of our communities.

References

PBS, Newshour, Sat April 27, & Arizona Pubic Media (video), Oct 1, 2018. Connecting mothers. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P_RmMpDL9ZU

Luthar, S. S, Kumar, N. L., & Benoit R. (2019). Toward fostering resilience on large scale: Connecting communities of caregivers. Development and Psychopathology, 31, 1813-1825.  DOI: 10.1017/S09545794190012513

National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). (2019). Vibrant and healthy kids: Aligning science, practice, and policy to advance health equity. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.17226/25466 

Smith, M.V., Callinan, L., Posner, C., Ciargello, M., & Holmes, S. (In press).  The MOMS Partnership: Reducing maternal depressive symptoms through a place-based, community partnered approach. Health Affairs.