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Kids are out of school, parents are working from home, couples are working side-by-side, and grandparents may be further isolated from family and loved ones. Social distancing and sheltering in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19 is changing all of our lives. But, especially how we are interacting with family and loved ones.  Some people may be struggling with feeling isolated while others are struggling with an overwhelming feeling of everyone being in the same house for hours, days, and seemingly weeks on end – as if it is some cosmic test of our true capacity to work-life balance. In this dichotomy, we can feel both isolated and overwhelmed by our current family situation.

You are not alone! We are all feeling a lot of emotions right now and struggling to adjust. But, being intentional about staying connected to the family during this time is critical to our long-term health. In fact, Mental Health America has found that since February anxiety has increased by 19%. And social distancing may only exacerbate the loneliness epidemic across the US. Maintaining healthy family relationships during this time can mitigate these mental health concerns and help us get through this time together.

Here are some ideas that may help us all stay connected with family:

Checking in: You and others could be struggling right now. But, because we are all social distancing it may be difficult to know how to ask for help. Remember to check-in with friends and family who you haven’t heard from or who you know might be prone to loneliness or anxiety. A simple text or phone call is all it takes. Remember to ask specific questions about what they did today, what things help them feel better, and what they are planning to do. Try to avoid general questions like, “How are you doing?” because they tend to elicit less meaningful conversations. Also, these check-in calls are not one-way beneficial, they will also help you feel more connected to family and friends who you cannot see.

Creative online connections: With technology readily available for many families, finding creative ways to connect with friends and family are good for children and adults. Here are some ideas:

  1. Virtual playdates: Children are likely missing their friends they get to see in school every day. And, let’s face it, parents probably need to get some work done. Using video conference software (Face time, Skype, Gchat, Zoom, Messenger Kids by Facebook) children can play with their friends. For example, kids can play charades together (parents email play items before), color or paint together, or just talk. Children are creative so you can try to give them the space to come up with something they want to do.
  2. Virtual adult playdates: Once the kids are sleeping, connecting with friends and family (who aren’t currently living with you) can help relieve feelings of anxiety or isolation. Grab a glass of wine or some herbal tea and join a group chat. Laugh about silly things that have happened, share ideas about how to cope, and tell each other you miss them.
  3. Online Communities: Several online communities and activities are popping up that can help break up the day and give parents reprieve in planning home school activities and feel connected to the outside community. For example:
  • Illustrator Wendy MacNaughton is hosting daily drawing lessons live on Instagram (@wendymac) for children of all ages.
  • Josh Gadd (@JoshGadd) is reading children storybooks every day on Instagram live.
  • Debbie Allan (@therealdebbieallen) is hosting online dance classes on Instagram live.

Also, several phone apps are offering free services during this time to help reduce stress and anxiety including Down Dog (guides you and your family through yoga practice) and Calm (provides guided meditations or sleep stories).

Creative Offline Connections: Not everyone has access to broadband internet or is tech-savvy enough to use the internet to help reduce loneliness and anxiety. This may be particularly true from grandparents and older adults who are already prone to loneliness. There are many things to do, here are some examples:

  1. Phone calls: Make regular phone calls (like checking in) but engage the entire family including children. Intergenerational relationships are very important for both grandparents’ and grandchildren’s health. Phone calls are a simple way to encourage these relationships.
  2. TV Shows: You can also watch shows or listen to the radio together. While the idea of live television might be a historical concept to many of us, it still exists! We can watch live tv with grandparents and other family members over the phone and chat about the show during the commercial break (I KNOW, some people still have to endure commercials).
  3. Phone Games: Engaging grandparents over the phone with kids through games. Maybe play a treasure hunt where the grandparents tell the kids clues (given by the parents) to go find toys (they already have) or clothing items for getting dressed that morning. Or less planning intensive games like “Mother May I,” “Simon Says,” and “Freeze Dance”.
  4. Reading: I know, a novel concept! But, reading aloud over the phone to grandparents or distant family members is a great way for emerging readers to practice reading. This can also work in the other direction. Family members can read to children at any time of the day.
  5. Letter Writing: Consider writing letters to loved ones. Even though this isn’t an instantaneous connection, it could be a good pay off if we are in our separate home for a while. Also, this could just be a good habit to form for maintaining long-term intergenerational connections.

Mental Health Resources: For those who are concerned that these techniques might not be sufficient for their current mental health or the mental health of loved ones. There are several resources you can reach out to:

  1. Counseling: Many mental health professionals are moving online or providing online resources:
  2. Suicide Prevention: If you are worried about your safety or the safety of a loved one please call national suicide prevision hotline: 800-273-TALK
  3. Domestic Violence: Some people are being confined to unsafe homes with abusers. If this is a concern for you or a loved one please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-SAFE.

During this time, our lives may look much different than they typically do and we all might be feeling more lonely or anxious than usual. Connecting with friends and family may look a lot different than it typically does but we can all learn to adapt together. The key is to surviving during this time together is being creative and intentional in maintaining connections with loved ones, reaching out to those who are prone to loneliness or anxiety, and remembering we are all in this together!

Do you have more ideas for connecting with loved ones from a distance?  Share them in the comments!

Patricia N. E. Roberson, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the College of Nursing at the University of Tennessee and the host of the Attached Podcast.