How family members can learn to live well together

We may have little choice about with whom we are spending lockdown.

But, while we may wish for greater choice, Professor Sarah Stewart-Brown of the University of Warwick argues that we can develop a fresh appreciation for family members if we develop the skills to express and acknowledge our emotions in this difficult period.

Here, she offers her advice on how families can learn to get along better ...

Children feel things more acutely than adults

“Children are very sensitive to the emotions of others,” explains Professor Stewart-Brown. “Very young children feel these deeply and cannot express what they feel.

“So they will be aware of the fear that many people are feeling and will be affected by it.

“They will also be aware of the many tensions that arise in homes where parents are trying to adjust to living in a very different way and at the same time cope with fears about finances or relatives from whom they are isolated.

“How you talk to your children and what you expect of them in terms of understanding and reasoning varies with age.”

Children: what is going on is not your fault

To children at home at the moment, particularly those missing school, Professor Stewart-Brown says: “This is a strange time. Your parents and brothers and sisters have not been through anything like this before.They are trying to find out how to do it just as you are. They may also be worrying about granny or grandpa because they can’t go and see them and they might get sick. Or they may be worrying about money and how they are going to cope.

“So see if you can cut them some slack. They are probably trying to do their best even if it doesn’t feel good to you.

“Most importantly, please understand that what is going on is not your fault.”

Adults: deal with your emotions first

For parents, Professor Stewart-Brown espouses the ‘aeroplane principle’.

“Unless you attend to your own needs first, you are no help to your child. Some adults respond to fear with anger, others by becoming controlling, blaming others, becoming more dependent, or isolating themselves. The more frightened they are, the less they are able to control these reactions.

“What is needed is for you to calm down, regulating your nervous systems in whatever way works for you. If you can calm down, get yourself out of anger or dependency, your children will calm down with you.”Learning the skills of self-regulation

“In every home, people are having to work out how to live differently and for this they need to be very good at negotiating who will do what and when with whom and how,” says Professor Stewart-Brown.

“Difficult emotions met by others with understanding and sympathy allow the skill of self-regulation to develop during childhood so someone in meltdown can bring themselves out of this.

“Because this wasn’t well understood when most of us were children, many adults are not very skilled in this now.

“So when we get gripped by fear we respond much like our children.

“And we need the same help children need - to be met with understanding and sympathy.”

Sarah Stewart-Brown is Professor of Public Health at Warwick Medical School. She is an expert in measuring and monitoring mental health and wellbeing with a special interest in parenting and parenting programmes.