First, let me say that this is not one of those know-it-all articles that are going to be all lovey-dovey about how wonderful that togetherness about the pandemic and isolation has been for our family. It has been just as stressful for us— if not more so—than has been for others. All of my children have been adopted from hard places and all of them struggle. All of them struggle with attachment, self-regulation, defiance, and the alphabet soup of diagnoses. That being said, in some ways, it was kind of nice for our fairly busy, active family to slow down. If there is any upside at all to a global scale pandemic, it is that we have all gotten the chance to slow down, reflect on the parts of our lives that are important and the parts that we can push aside for a while, and form connections with each other. Do I wish we could have all come to the conclusion that slowing down can be better for our families without thousands of people becoming deathly ill and the entire economy having to shut down? Absolutely. This isn’t a lemonade-out-of-lemons situation. It’s been pretty awful.
Even though my children have gone back to school full-time, there are the ever-hovering threats that somebody is going to get sick and the school will shut down again. There is a fear that we may be asked to keep them home and help them learn online again at the drop of a hat. To say that online learning was a disaster last year is to grossly underestimate the situation. My kids, like so many others, struggle greatly with the idea of only seeing their classmates and friends through a computer screen. Counseling moved to Zoom-only appointments. Doctors became accessible only virtually unless it was a dire emergency. Forming connections became difficult. My house, which had once been my sanctuary and opportunity for peace and quiet, became something of a war zone.
We were actually luckier than most. My husband works at a place that wasn’t largely affected by the pandemic (they only shut down for a few weeks; he was furloughed for a few weeks, but he did not lose his job). We had to adapt, and we had to learn, and we had to strive to form connections in a way that we simply hadn’t had to before. My kids have always had behaviors that were a struggle to deal with, which added to the increased pressure of school, the inability to see friends, no option to go to church or even McDonald’s—they basically couldn’t do anything besides go walk on trails at a park. Even those would cause them to spiral out of control in a way that I’m not sure I could have anticipated. And my kids are good kids. I say with sincerity that I’m not sure what the status of our family would be if even one of them struggled with behavior more than they did, if my husband had lost his job, or if our house had been in danger. So, take my words with a grain of salt, but here are some of our ideas that worked to build connections during a pandemic. Hopefully, if you’re reading this your area is not under lockdown anymore but if it is I hope that these ideas help someone. And if we should find ourselves in a situation that is similar to the one we were facing last year I hope that there is at least some amount of usefulness in my words.
Make it completely normal to fall apart
What do I mean? Obviously don’t lose your cool with your kids but if you find yourself suddenly comforting a crying child who is upset that they can only see their best friend through Zoom meetings, let them know that you are also feeling sad. Let them know that their feelings have a place and that there are full-grown adults with degrees who have no idea how to completely handle what is going on. It is simply unprecedented; we have never before in history been expected to keep ourselves locked in our homes without contact with family or friends. Never before have we been unable to go to the grocery store or the playground for fear of spreading germs. Never before have we had to hold church in our living rooms instead of going to the church building. What we’ve been asked to do for the better part of a year is so bizarre. Let your kids know in age-appropriate ways that it is okay to cry if it feels like it is too much. Let them know that their mommy and daddy are feeling lonely, too. For sure don’t diminish their feelings by expressing yours but aim to normalize their feelings. This is especially important for kids who have come from a hard place like foster care or adoption. The trauma they may feel because of the loss of their first family can still cause problems. Normalize that it’s okay to not be okay right now. Encourage them to sit with you to cry, talk, or pray about it. It feels weird and sad so if you’re feeling that way for sure your kid is feeling that way even if they don’t know how to say it. Showing them you feel the same way can help you to form connections with them.
Try to keep a schedule but don’t become beholden to it
One of the things I found with my kids is that they simultaneously rail against being scheduled and fall apart if they don’t know what’s going to happen next. Something that helped us after we realized that we weren’t going back to school after spring break was to make a schedule. It wasn’t super detailed; it wasn’t minute to minute or hour to hour but it was a general idea of when we would do each responsibility. The schedule included when we would go to school and work, do chores, have playtime, and eat. We got plenty of fresh air when the weather was nice; we live in Texas so it gets sweltering hot but while the weather was nice we took advantage of it and would go on long walks. We have dogs and so we would take the dogs to keep our minds off of our worries. The dogs loved it; they knew our schedule and would start to wine when they knew it was time to go. Because we had a schedule, our days were predictable; the kids could rely on the fact that at least once a day they’d get out of the house even if it was just to walk around the neighborhood.
Become super okay going with the flow
Our kids often surprise us when they take three or four hours to do an activity that I think will only take an hour. For example, we bought the biggest box of sidewalk chalk that our Walmart sold, which is something like 50 pieces of sidewalk chalk. We went to this park near us that is just sidewalks in a big loop with some ponds in the middle. There’s a little playground but it was off-limits. So we went underneath this pavilion to use our sidewalk chalk. I thought my kids would get bored of this game in less than an hour, so we also brought scooters, snacks, bubbles, and even little minnow nets so they could catch minnows in the pond. And then I was surprised. The girls had recently discovered that hopscotch was a thing, so I made this super long hopscotch-based obstacle course. I wrote to hop like a frog and roll like a hedgehog. This was not a unique idea; I’m sure I had seen it before, but my girls ate it up and we spent 2 1/2 hours at that park just doing the obstacle course and sidewalk chalk. I feel like we would have missed out if I had said to leave after only an hour. So I just kind of rolled with it. I also had water and snacks so if things went longer they weren’t gonna be starving and whiny because they were hungry. I think if I hadn’t had that foresight we would have had to leave much earlier. If you find yourself in a similar pandemic situation with your kids and you’re hoping to work on some attachment, you can get comfortable going with something your kids like to form connections.
Build individual connections with your kids
This one only really applies if you have multiple children, though it could be helpful if you are also working full time and only have one child. I have five children and work part-time so it became super important to build individual connections with my kids and make them feel seen. I would encourage you to try to build one-on-one time with your kid several times a day if you can. I would take one kid into my room and we’d sit on my bed and I would just ask how they were doing. My kids are young, so they didn’t give me big answers about how they were feeling or how they were doing, but we’re starting to improve and we’re starting to give them some words to express how they feel. You can look at some feeling charts or feeling wheels online with different facial expressions and spend 10-15 minutes at a time cycling through them and ask your kids how they are doing. Sometimes I sit and cuddle with my little kids.
The big ones don’t love cuddling and they can barely handle eye contact right now. I punted that one to my husband who loves video games. My son loves video games and so he had one-on-one time with his dad. My husband is very good at carving out time in the evening after the girls are in bed to sit and play a video game with him. Many nights they might not say more than three words to each other but I know that my son feels seen and that’s important to me.
My girls are super touchy-feely and I love it. Something that one of my daughters especially loves is playing with hair together. I braid her hair and she braids my hair. I let her put big ridiculous JoJo bows in my hair and braid it however she wants and it has become a time of bonding for us that we haven’t had before. So it was neat to see her personality shine through during this really difficult time. I feel like it was really difficult for her especially because all of my kids are extroverted. My oldest daughter lives for people; she lives to see her teacher, her friends, people at church, and new people. And what you probably can’t grasp from this article or others I’ve written is that I am an extreme introvert. My communication is best done in writing, typically over text if that is possible. Chatter can genuinely drive me to exhaustion. So part of my job during the pandemic to form connections with my daughter was to make sure that her tank was full by letting her say all the words. We also got grandma in on the fun by doing Skype calls once a week. We had never done that before but the pandemic made for a good opportunity. Grandma read stories; my other two girls did not care to sit still since they had Zoom calls for school and counseling, but my oldest daughter ate it up. She loved talking and listening to the story and having one-on-one attention with Grandma, and it was so good to help her connect to our family.
Form connections doing activities together
We are a big mountain biking family. Our littles learned how to ride soon after they learned to walk. We got so many quality mountain biking trips during this pandemic. It was perfect because it was naturally a socially distanced activity, it wore them out, and it engaged all of their senses. This method of forming connections does not work for everyone. Maybe just walking together or bird watching would work for you. Find a common goal and work toward it together. Maybe nature isn’t your thing but baking is. My kids all learned how to cook to some degree during the lockdown. I had to grit my teeth a bunch to keep from getting upset because they didn’t do things the right way but, by and large, it was a fun bonding experience.
Hopefully, we never face a pandemic again but if you find yourself in a situation where you have more one-on-one time with your kid than you know what to do with I hope these ideas help.