How to Survive and Thrive When Times are Tough

Photo by Umberto Fistarol on Flickr


We've all had those rough spells in our family (and romantic life) where things seem stressful, chaotic and a little out of control. 

Sometimes these "moments" are caused by challenging events in our lives, like serious illness of a loved one, job loss, or a car accident.

Other times, a rough spell can be precipitated by relationship struggles (lots of conflict and arguing between family members) or worries about work, money, or kids (in school and out).

In my time as parent, partner, and director of a Psychology Training Center, I have had numerous personal and professional experiences with families going through these rough spells and would like to share 4 Tips that I have found helpful in surviving and thriving during those times.

THE STRONGER THE STORM, THE STRONGER THE CONTAINER

I use the sentence above to remind myself to TIGHTEN UP OUR CONTAINER when I sense things slipping out of control or our family starting to struggle.

This is because - during those rough times - family members are looking for a greater sense of predictability, safety, hope, connection and trust.


These can be greatly increased by batting down the hatches and strengthening that container - even if only until the storm passes.
Note: I will use the word "crisis" as a shorthand for "those rough times" - based on the definition of crisis as "a potentially unstable or dangerous situation, and/or emotionally stressful event, and/or traumatic change in a person’s life in which risk to life or property is not serious, not imminent and not likely"

4 Tips for Building a Stronger Container

1. ADD FAMILY AND COUPLE RITUALS

Though you may feel down and tired during crisis times, it is MORE important than ever to build in daily and weekly family rituals (as well as continue to follow annual rituals to celebrate holidays, birthdays, etc.). When family members and romantic partners know that this (connecting) thing happens the same way every day no matter what, their sense of predictability, safety, and trust is increased. Think of it as a safe spot within the maelstrom.
RESEARCH SAYS: Rituals (purposeful, planned family activities that happen regularly and follow a pattern) have been shown to be significantly related to resiliency, well-being, health, and prevention of psychological difficulties in families (see Rituals and Resiliency).
Examples of Rituals that have worked for our family during crisis times (and in between):

  • Reading aloud together every night for 15-20 minutes from a "chapter book" (yes, the 9 yr old loves it too)
  • Eating dinner together as many nights a week as possible
  • Expressing Appreciations for each other at dinner in a ritualistic way (see my blog post on this for more detail)
  • Getting up 15 minutes before the kids and having a quiet coffee together
  • Lighting candles and watching the Peter, Paul and Mary video "Light One Candle" on every night of Hanukah

2. INCREASE SIGNS OF AFFECTION

During times of crisis, family members are particularly vulnerable and worried about how much they matter, are accepted, loved and cared for. Increasing physical touch, gratitude, and small signs of kindness will help to contribute to everyone's sense of safety, connection, mattering and trust.
RESEARCH SAYS: Small daily signs of physical affection and care have been shown to significantly strengthen relationships, increase connection and create resiliency (see Marriage Secret, for instance). Hugs between partners increase oxytocin (the "love" hormone) - and I know they do wonders for our "cool" 9 yr old! Finally, an orientation towards gratitude has been shown to have positive emotional and interpersonal benefits for individuals and families (see Counting Blessings, for instance).
Examples of Increased Signs of Affection that have worked for our family during crisis times (and in between):
  • Offering the kids a big bear hug instead of a stern criticism when they seem whiny or upset (hey you, come over here and give me a big hug)
  • Writing notes of appreciation to friends and family members on real paper one evening a week (with the kids adding words and pictures) (Read here about one man's experiment with thank-you-notes)
  • Playing "spot that kindness" some weekend afternoons (a variation on random acts of kindness where we do little nice things for each other with the recipients trying to notice as many as possible) - very voluntary and no pressure!
  • Sneaking silly love notes into the kids lunchboxes or partner's briefcase

3. SEEK AND ACCEPT SUPPORT

While we may realize, on some level, that seeking (and accepting) support during times of crisis makes sense, we often do just the opposite, because of our beliefs about being "strong", "independent" and "private" about our troubles. Yet, for kids (and partners) it may be very important to see that they are not the only ones feeling worried, scared, guilty, or numb inside. Expressing your true feelings and reaching out for support both SHOWS and MODELS self-mattering.
RESEARCH SAYS: Social support, and "emotional support" in particular, has been strongly linked to better health, immune functioning, and psychological well being. Instrumental support (with tasks and care) can also have significant effects on our well being. Talking and writing about negative feelings helps decrease their negative effects - as long as you stay away from people who co-ruminate with you (focus on problem), choosing, instead, to talk to people who listen empathically. In addition, being vulnerable can increase the support and understanding you get from others, as well as increase positive feelings in your life.
Given how important it is, I invite you to stretch just a bit by softening your "armor" and letting others hold your troubles with you.

Examples of Seeking and Accepting Support that have worked for our family during crisis times:
  • Saying "yes" to every offer of support, graciously (including letting out of town friends clean our kitchen)
  • Hiring a "chef" to cook a week's worth of meals on Sundays (for freezing)
  • Emailing regular updates to a trusted list of friends and family (and receiving loads of support in return)
  • Reaching out to friends who tend to see the beauty in us (including out-of-touch friends)
  • Admitting to people that we are "having a tough time" or "things are hard right now"
  • Showing our kids and each other a range of emotions and explaining with words that we feel "sad" or "worried" and why
  • Supporting each other with exercising more, eating better, and going to sleep earlier
  • Taking time out to grieve and mourn - and letting each other know that we're doing it
  • Seeking professional support when needed (including counseling, house cleaning services, and communication coaching)

4. CREATE SOMETHING TOGETHER

Finally, it can be helpful during a crisis (and certainly after it passes), to work towards creating something together that is not related to survival. This can create a sense of harmony, peace, togetherness, and non-urgency that is important in the midst of crisis.

Examples of Co-Creating Together that have worked for our family during crisis times:
  • Writing something together! (I worked on this blog post with my 9 yr old son)
  • Creating thank-you notes together (each teacher got one as a holiday card)
  • Preparing meals together (pancakes or sushi work well)
  • Creating new organizational systems together (for toys or art supplies)
  • Coloring together (picking crazy colors to make it more fun)
  • Carving pumpkins together
  • Learning and doing restorative practices together when conflicts get tough
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After a crisis has passed, family members (together and separately) will need time to grieve, heal, and address conflict restoratively.

And of course, count their blessings.

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WHAT ARE YOUR TIPS FOR GETTING THROUGH THE TOUGH TIMES?

Please share in the comments below so we can learn from each other.
Note: This article was originally published as a Crisis Survival Guide for Families and Couples. I updated the Title and Intro after getting feedback from readers that the article was helpful - but the word "crisis" did not resonate for them when thinking about their "rough times."

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