5 Ways to Minimize Family Fighting While Homebound

During this time, REACH is pleased to provide information to help make our current situation a little easier. Below is an article originally published in US News and World Report.

MY DAY STARTED OFF WITH my son throwing a shoe at my daughter and spiraled down from there. There is a detectable edge to our voices, stomp in our steps and mutter under our collective breaths. If this is supposed to count as family time, then family time is overrated.

Quarantine quarreling is becoming an all-too-identifiable theme in conversations with friends, comic punchlines and social media posts. My husband shared a meme this morning that read: “Kinda starting to understand why pets try to run out of the house when the front door opens.”

It’s not surprising that families are fighting while being sequestered in their homes. Many are stuck together in tight quarters as parents try to work and manage home life simultaneously. There is also, of course, the real threat of illness, and it’s not clear when we’ll be safe again to leave our homes and freely socialize – in person – with others in our communities.

All of these issues are triggering the part of the brain called the amygdala that’s involved in experiencing emotions and survival instincts, and igniting the fight-or-flight response in many. And since fleeing is not an option, fighting is becoming all too common among family members.

What can we do to keep quarrels to a minimum when homebound with the family? Here are five steps I’d suggest taking:

1. Start with empathy. Compassion and understanding can go a long way to bridge the gap between family members. Acknowledge that this situation is, indeed, challenging, and how it may be tough for each family member. Consider everyone’s perspective.

Listen to what your children are saying to you about their frustrations. When arguments ensue, read between the lines. You might tell your kids, “I can imagine that it’s been difficult for you to be out of your routine and not be able to see your friends.” Acknowledge the challenges of having to stay home, make sure to cut everyone some slack and remind your kids that you’re all in this together.

2. Plan a family meeting to discuss triggering issues and solutions. Are your kids leaving wrappers on the counter after you just cleaned? Is your daughter listening to loud music when you’re trying to work from home?

These occurrences, while perhaps not a big deal on a single snow day, become much more significant when we’re home together for weeks or months. Call a family meeting to discuss, as kindly as possible, the needs of each family member, the challenge that is triggering them and possible solutions to each problem.

Start the discussion by describing the challenge. For example, “Since I am working from the kitchen table now, I need quiet to be able to write and take phone calls. I’m having trouble concentrating when you’re playing loud music nearby.” You could then come up with a solution, such as having your child play music while using earbuds at a certain agreed-upon time of day or when in her room with her door closed to minimize frustration.[ 

3. Carve out space for each family member. As people have been getting more and more used to cyberspace with its unlimited elbow room, bumping up against one another in small quarters for extended periods of time can leave many on edge. According to Michael Graziano, neuroscientist and author of “The Spaces Between Us: A Story of Neuroscience, Evolution, and Human Nature,” what he describes as “peripersonal space” is essentially a buffer around us that has a profound impact on how we react toward one another, especially if it’s not respected.

While family members are often in closer proximity than others, research tells us that family conflict around personal space can have a negative impact on trust and communication, especially between siblings. Whether it’s hanging around when someone is trying to read a book, using someone else’s possessions without permission or infringing on a family member’s privacy, this has to be discussed.

Take it head on. “Since we are all here together for many hours each day, we need to remember to give each person their own time and space.” This might mean establishing a rule around closed doors such as, “When the door is shut, it means your sister needs private time.” Or set parameters around small spaces that allow family members to have a bit of alone time. “When your brother is sitting in the chair by the window, he doesn’t want to be disturbed.” It also may mean giving family members more space when emotions are running high.

4. Plan to have fun together as a family and allow for alone time as well. Some arguments among family members stem from children wanting attention and to play. It’s important for families to balance the needs of parents and children, including work and school demands, with the desire to come together or play alone.

One of my best friends, who is also a teacher, has three children at home – a 4-year-old and two 11-year-olds. She has a detailed schedule for all of them throughout the day. For the youngest, she has laid out daily activities, such as playtime inside and on the back patio as well as reading time with one of her siblings or with her. She also has scheduled some independent play time for all three of them so that she can spend one-on-one time with each child while also having some time for herself.

Ensure that you have easily accessible and safe toys, puzzles, art supplies, games and activity books that can be used without assistance when you are unavailable to provide help.

5. Engage in stress-reducing activities. We all need to blow off steam and fill our buckets even when we are cooped up inside. Whether running or riding a bike, meditation, gardening in the yard, drawing or dancing, make sure it’s part of the day. During this pandemic, virtual classes are provided for every interest from doodling to virtual Jazzercise, gymnastics, martial arts and yes, full-out workouts for mom or dad.

Make sure everyone is getting up and moving even if you aren’t going anywhere. Ask your children: “What activities make you feel calm inside? What do you like to do to burn some energy? Each of us can pick some classes to help us settle our minds and move our bodies!”

And when you are in the moment and tempers flare, suggest a “brain break” for everyone to calm down before discussing the issue further. Nothing soothes the amygdala like a little time and space to cool off and simmer down. My children typically grab a book and read to settle themselves. Some children may prefer to cuddle in a blanket, while others may need to do something physical or talk it out.

Whatever it is, this time allows for perspective-taking and self-soothing so that everyone, including the parent, can be fully present and calm. And finding connection and peace, even when interspersed by moments of frustration, is family time well spent.

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