The challenges of home-based work and schooling may be with us for some time and it feels like this is the hardest bit of lockdown yet. The strongest bonds in relationships can be tested by this. Couples therapy has proved a route to help, we have been offering a 'shorter burst' package of four, once a week sessions. Here, one of our therapists, offers advice on dealing with home schooling pressure.
This time round home schooling feels familiar, as parents now have the experience of how it went last time under their belts. Parents can capitalise on the good experiences, and try not to repeat the bad ones.
Last year, during our ‘Living with Lockdown’ short term couple therapy programme, we saw recurrent themes of home schooling difficulties between parents, and we have some advice about the best ways to deal with them this time:
1. Acknowledge the importance of each other’s roles - Resentment around the different roles parents were having to take on, for example one having to do all the home schooling and domestic side of things, while the other focussed on their job, were common. But what seemed to help couples here was being able to find a way to acknowledge the importance of each other’s roles, and to show respect for each other’s roles.
2. Listen to each other – Many couples experienced difficulties communicating with each other about worries over a child who was struggling. What seemed to help here was not finding out who had the “right” answer for what to do to help their child, but more about helping each parent feel heard by the other. Taking turns to express themselves without interruption, and acknowledging each other helped.
3. Accept different expectations about what is possible academically - This was often a pre-existing issue in the relationship, but the intensity of the home school environment brought this issue to the top of the agenda. Helping couples see that perhaps this issue wasn’t one to resolve now, but was a situation that just needed managing in the short term, took some of the heat out of it. It was helpful when parents could see that the fact they had different styles could actually be helpful, as it could offer their children an interesting range of ways to do things. Rather than interfere with each other and argue in front of the children about which way was best, parents were supported to try to find something to appreciate about each other’s approach.
4. Carving out couple space – Many couples found it hard to have any time where they felt they could be identified as a couple, rather than as parents and domestic providers. We thought about small ways that couples could connect with the couple side of them. Cups of tea was a surprisingly recurrent theme! Making them for each other always went down well, and some expressed that they would have appreciated a few more. One of the things that happens to couples under extreme parenting stress is a need to feel parented themselves. This is so hard to offer to each other when both are feeling maxed out. Watching the same TV show and sharing in something, rather than doing things separately, seemed an important way of connecting.
5. Taking time out - Equally couples needed to find space away from each other and the family to recharge themselves. Couples thought creatively about how to do that, whether it was going for a walk alone or agreeing that they wouldn’t see each other for a few hours. It felt odd sometimes for couples to have to create new boundaries with each other within their own home, but sometimes they were helpful.
6. Find ways to take the heat out – Home schooling brings up some very raw feelings for parents to manage. Feelings of incompetence, frustration and worry about what it means for the children. Feelings of frustration and worry about not being able to do one’s own job properly because of needing to help the children. Feelings of desperation about the endless domestic tasks. And all this in the context of the highly worrying external pandemic situation, with all its implications. Being aware of when things feel too much before they get too much is important. One way of dealing with a pressure cooker is to take it off the heat. Trying to think together about ways to take the heat out of the situation before it becomes too much can be helpful. This may mean reducing the amount of home schooling, or keeping food as simple as possible, or letting the house get messier than usual.
7. Turn to the relationship for support - When parents are under pressure like this, one of the things they can do is turn to is the relationship itself for support. Using the experience of last time, they might think about how they dealt with home schooling last time, and how to share out the different responsibilities. And when there are such raw feelings around, the relationship may be the place where someone can let off steam about the challenges of the day. It may be really important for their partner to be able to hear this. In the Living with Lockdown project, couples spoke of how when they’d had a difficult day home schooling, they didn’t want criticism or judgement or even problem solving from their partner. They just wanted to acknowledgement as to how tough it felt. When a couple can make space between them to tend to the challenges they face, it can shield the children from being on the end of the feelings.
8. Repairing is important - this space between a couple doesn’t necessarily look tidy. These might be difficult conversations where one or both people are full of feelings. There might be arguments that need repairing afterwards. Nothing looks tidy in these home schooling days. Messy homes, messy conversations. The capacity to repair and make up is important and it requires a couple to make space to do so (another good excuse for a cup of tea). This isn’t easy, and couples need to bear in mind that conflict in front of their children is harmful for their children.
Sometimes couples may feel that they need therapeutic help to create that space between them and this was part of the idea of the 4 session model of the Living with Lockdown programme. To find out more visit our service page.
If of course it feels that arguments are getting out of control or getting violent then it is important that help is sought urgently.