Six tips to help Metro Detroit families get along during crisis

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Every family has its own dynamic, but mix a global pandemic with online home-schooling and working from home for most parents, and it could be a recipe for some serious stress in households across Metro Detroit. 

With the coronavirus still gripping Metro Detroit and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's "Stay Home, Stay Safe" order in place until at least the end of April, families across Michigan are spending unprecedented amounts of time together. Since the start of Whitmer's order, which was issued March 23, families have been together for at least three weeks at this point.

Experts say flexibility is important during these challenging times. Communication also can help as do routines and schedules, though again, being adaptable is important if a routine needs to be adjusted.

And for families who may already have challenges, remember there is "no quick fix," said Debra Orbuch Grayson, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Minneapolis and the author of “Building Family Relationships: A Workbook for Parents and Stepparents." "All families are different. My family may not look like your family and that’s OK. We’re still going to be OK."

Dr. Daniel Klein, a child psychologist and the founder and director of the Child and Family Solutions Center, which has offices in Farmington Hills and Bingham Farms, said there is no road map for what families are experiencing right now.

“We do know that learning to tolerate uncertainty can help us better cope and manage in the long term” said Klein. 

Louise and Graham Sloan of Bloomfield Township have been trying to focus on grace, gratitude and kindness during their time at home with their three kids — and simple pleasures. Their kids — Jack, 11; Sadie, 9; and Nick, 7 — made their own bike trail in the family's backyard and they've been watching the classic 1980s TV show "The A Team" together as a family.

"We are figuring it out one day at a time," said Louise. "I don’t think there’s any one right way." 

Nick Sloan, left, with his sister Sadie and brother Jack peddle along their own bike trail starting in their backyard and circling their Bloomfield Hills home on Friday.

Here are six tips for getting along and keeping the harmony within your own family during these challenging times.

1. Be sensitive to each other's feelings

Michelle May, a licensed professional counselor and personal development coach who lives in Detroit, said it's important for all families to remember that emotions are raw right now.

"Try to be patient and understanding as family members may experience a wide range of emotions including fear, anxiety, anger and sadness," said May. "It is helpful to be as reassuring as possible that these emotions are normal, but that you are all there to keep each other safe. The sense of safety is very important at this time."

2. Parents or adults set the tone

If adults are frazzled during this pandemic, imagine how children feel, experts say.

Grayson says everyone is allowed to feel overwhelmed and have those feelings acknowledged, but parents should talk about their concerns with other adults, not their kids.

"As the adults in the family, the message that is important to communicate is that this is hard, we’re going to get through this, give a sense of encouragement while still being real," said Grayson. "If parents feel stressed and worried, talk to other adults about that."

Monica Fugedi, a wellness and crisis counselor at Groves High School in Birmingham, suggests that parents of older children, especially those who may be missing big milestones, frame the current situation as an opportunity.

"A student is going to feed off their parent's vibe," said Fugedi. "Try to frame it as a different opportunity that is unique to your graduating class. 'How can we make this our own?'"

3. Communicate — but not too much

Grayson said communication is important but how much each family member needs to talk about a given situation really depends on the person. The mistake some parents make, she said, is talking too much. 

"Make a statement 'This is hard, we’re all learning, we’re going to get through it' and then periodically ask a question. But don’t assume that everybody needs to talk about it all time," said Grayson. "That can feel overwhelming as well."

For kids who may be missing their friends, set up a Zoom videoconference call. But again, don't think every child needs the same amount of social connection.

"Every child is different and while some might need a whole lot of connections, some might not need the same level of connection," said Fugedi.

4. Establish a schedule, but be flexible

For families, schedules or routines help create a sense of control in a situation where we may feel powerless. Structure reduces anxiety, said Fugedi.

"You can create a structure that empowers a student to feel more in control of their day," said Fugedi.

But be flexible, suggests Grayson. 

"Routines work until they don’t," she said. "And then create another one."

The Moore family in Farmington Hills has been following a detailed schedule for the last several weeks that has helped lift spirits, said mom Judith. It details everything from when school time starts to a brief rest period in the afternoon.

Judith, who has a background in special education, said it took a little bit of time to observe what worked for her daughter Faith, who is in eighth grade, and son Elijah, a fourth-grader. But now both kids are happier with the schedule she's developed. 

 "Truthfully, (they) smile more often than when this first started," said Judith.

5. Respect each other's space

Space is important during these challenging times, especially for teenagers. And counselors say it's OK to say you need space, though it wouldn't be OK for an older child to stay in his or her room all day. 

Brooke Bendix, a licensed therapist with Michigan Family Therapy in Farmington Hills who works a lot with older children, teens and their families, says boundaries are a good thing. She suggests families have two meals together a day — maybe breakfast and dinner — and then it's OK to have alone time.

"I always tell parents and kids so they’re all on the same page, boundaries are incredibly important at this time," said Bendix. "And that means physical boundaries and emotional boundaries. ... Is it good to isolate in your room all day? No. There has to be some balance."

6. Focus on simple pleasures

Experts say it's the little stuff that can make a big difference in your family's emotional state — taking a walk outside, a bike ride or watching a show together. 

"It’s being present and enjoying the little things — reading, maybe even coloring, putting on music," said Bendix. "We're getting back to basics in a way."

For the Sloan family in Bloomfield Township, along with enjoying their new bike trail, they've been doing a lot of baking. Sadie created a fairy garden under a bush outside. And they're already on Season 2 of "The A Team."

"At first they (the kids) were a little bit like 'What is this?'" said Louise. "(But) it has become our drumbeat. It’s really great. I forgot that it was formulaic kind of thing. My husband and I have been able to relive our childhood with our kids. They really like Mr. T."

And every night at dinner, each family member shares what was his or her favorite part of the day. Louise said the family did this ritual before the pandemic but it's taken on more meaning during these pandemic.

"Little things really do matter to our kids," said Louise.