By Chanel Worsteling, AISA Child Protection & Well-being Programme Manager
The global COVID-19 pandemic has had far reaching consequences around the world. For some of our AISA international families one of those consequences has been the forced separation of family members. Work commitments, visa restrictions, travel bans, caring for sick relatives or pets, are just some of the factors that may have made it necessary for families to live apart at this time. This can cause a great deal of stress and anxiety, particularly given the uncertain nature of this pandemic. No one knows how long this pandemic will last, when a vaccine will be readily available or when life will return to normal, let alone what that new normal might look like!
So, how can families stay connected while living apart? It is now not uncommon for couples and families to live apart, even if temporarily. In Britain, about 10% of couples live apart, and in the U.S. the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that more than 3.5million couples are in a long-distance marriage – with that number doubling since 1990 . So how can families continue to feel close and connected while physically apart?
Presented here is not so much a list of what to do, but rather attitudes to adopt that might be helpful in promoting a sense of calm, well-being and connectedness for you and your family:
Be prepared to accept the situation for what it is
So much about COVID-19 is outside of our control and the uncertainty created by the global response to the pandemic can cause considerable stress and anxiety. The very real ramifications of travel restrictions imposed by countries around the world as they work to halt the spread of the disease mean that families living apart may not know when they will be together again. Understandably, feelings of loss, grief and hopelessness are normal responses to this difficult situation.
Accepting such feelings, without judging them, is important to our mental health and well-being. A UC Berkely study found that accepting negative emotions in the moment helps individuals avoid catastrophizing and respond better to stress. This does not mean embracing joyfully the current predicament, but rather accepting any negative emotions or thoughts without trying to change them. Share and validate these feelings with family members, including children where appropriate. Expressing your emotions, even those of sadness and longing, can be a powerful way to model to your children that all feelings are valid and are part of our experience of loving and caring for others. It also sends an important signal to them that they can share their emotions and any tricky thoughts they might be battling.
Be present, stay mindful
Acknowledging our emotions also helps us connect to the present moment and connecting to the present helps us stay in touch with the people and the life we have now. Being in a constant state of worry or longing for the future can make it difficult to stay attuned and connected with our loved ones in the present who may need our support now more than ever.
Mindfulness or meditation are simple practices which can help bring your attention back to the present which has been shown to relieve stress and anxiety. Stay focused on what you can do in the present rather than stress about what you can’t control.
Your partner comes home from work and you immediately sense they’ve had a bad day. Sound familiar? When people are physically together we can emotionally attune to our partners and loved ones. Body language, facial expressions and tone of voice provide us with cues into the emotional state of our loved ones which can guide us in our response to them. When we are together physically we can respond to our partners or children with a hug or squeeze of the hand to reassure them that we are there to support and care for them.
When we are separated by distance, it is more difficult, or takes a little more effort to attune to the emotional state of your loved one. This is particularly true if your main form of communication is a text or email, it is easy to make assumptions and feel disconnected. Which is why it’s important to be more intentional in your communication with your loved ones if you are living apart. Being open and curious by asking, “How are you doing today?” “Help me understand” or, “What do you need from me today?” These questions signal to our loved ones that we are interested, we care and want to be supportive.
Prioritising time together is just as important when we live apart as when we are together. This is especially true when we are in different time zones and there is a need to adjust our schedules so as to make that connection meaningful. Be sure that enough time is set aside, preferably when you and your partner, and kids if relevant, are not too exhausted at least a few times a week. Whilst a short text throughout the day helps maintain a sense of connection, avoid texting about anything important.
Victor Borge once wrote, “Laughter is the closest distance between two people.” We’ve probably all experienced how laughter and joint fun can make us feel connected to people.
There are many ways that couples and families can foster a sense of fun in their online communication. Play and on or offline game together, a crossword puzzle or watch your favourite Netflix or family movies simultaneously. Read the same book, or if you have younger children, read to them over video chat. In essence, think about the things you enjoy doing together and see if you can find ways to continue to do those things together, but online. If going on a walk, share the journey through your camera. Creating shared experiences, even online ones, can make this time more memorable and less burdened by anxiety and sadness.
Living apart, particularly when we feel we don’t have a choice in the matter, can be emotionally draining. But there are some up-sides to time apart. For one, being separated can give us cause to really appreciate those we are separated from. Seeing the positives in others makes us grateful and keeps us positioned toward each other. Don’t forget to communicate with your loved ones all the positives you see in them and your family, this will help keep your communications warm, open and foster connection.
Be planning for the future
Even if we successfully do all the above, we will have days when we really struggle with being apart from those we love. This is especially pronounced where there may be no end date in sight. In these moments, it’s especially important to remind ourselves that eventually, you will be together again. Imagining a future where your family is reunited will keep you hopeful and more positive about your current situation. As a couple or family, plan some things you will do when eventually you can be together. Perhaps even get creative about that and post pictures of places you plan to go or things you want to do together around the house as a reminder that better times lay ahead.