Dr Desiree Dickerson, PreKure’s clinical psychologist, shares some valuable tips for coping with isolation.
I am writing to you from Spain, where we are in day 12 of isolation. In New Zealand, you’re about to go into the same thing.
Here in Spain, we are allowed to go out to get food. We’re allowed to go out to go to the pharmacy. Other than that, unless you’re considered essential workers, you’re not allowed to leave the house for anything, which means the children aren’t allowed to leave the house at all. And that’s challenging.
In some ways it gets easier. You find a rhythm. Life slows down. In some ways you can become a bit more relaxed. But, in other ways it does get a bit tough.
We were initially put on lockdown for 15 days and that’s just been an extended for 20 more days. We are going to be here until at least the 11th of April. When I think about it too much, it can become overwhelming.
I just wanted to give you a few tips on how to get through this, and also share some of the highs and lows over the past 12 days.
Stay in the present
We’re trying to stay in the present moment, in the day-to-day. Trying to just tackle what it is we have to do today, or in this hour, has been really helpful and beneficial for me in trying to stay on top of those feelings of overwhelm as they bubble up.
It’s all starting to become a bit of a blur. When we sat down for dinner the other night my five-year-old daughter said, “Is this lunch or is this dinner?”. And my husband and I just cracked up laughing.
Ideas for kids
The kids are struggling, if I’m honest. They’re really quick to fight and cry, but they don’t understand what’s going on. They are not sure why they can’t go to the park. They can see the it from our window. They can’t understand why they can’t go and see their grandparents.
- Ninja training
The ‘ninja training’ involves us hurling cushions at the kids while they try to duck. It has now morphed into an all-out family brawl of pillow fighting, which brings heaps of giggles from the kids, and a good few solid laughs from us as well, which has been really positive. It’s essential to find the laughs in the day because otherwise it can get the better of you.
- Dance parties
We have a dance party, pretty much on the hour, every hour, which is probably quite entertaining for the neighbours.
- Online school with older kids
Good friends of mine have an older daughter, she must be 11 or 12 now – Lucy. And Lucy has set up a Google classroom for my five-year-old daughter. Lucy has set it up online, all by herself. It’s incredible. Judy loves it. She doesn’t do anything when I ask her to do it, but she absolutely will do it when Lucy asks.
So, get older cousins or children of friends to adopt a younger one. Set up some sort of dynamic. Check out Google classrooms. It provides some relief for the older kids and it provides relief, as well, for the little ones. It has been gold.
- Virtual babysitting
My mother has become a master of Zoom. The other day we had my laptop set up with my son sitting at a little table with his play dough. He sat there for 30 minutes, playing with this play dough and chatting to nana via Zoom. He loves to talk. Mum’s got the whiteboard function up and she’s drawing little dogs on the screen, and he was making doggy biscuits them. They were having a great time. And I was having a cup of tea in the kitchen. That, for me, was brilliant.
Another thing that we’ve been doing is virtual dinners with friends. The other night we jumped on a video conference and we had everyone that we would often go out for dinner with, all in the same space, everyone chatting. We had a good couple of hours of just quality laughs.
Another beautiful thing is the applause every night at 8pm for all the health workers, supermarket workers, and all the people who are on the front lines of this, having to stay and work, so that we can all stay at home and be safe. We’re all out there applauding and you get to smile and wave at your neighbours, and know that you’re not in this alone.
I wanted to talk to you about the concept of bucket filling. What does it mean? Well, basically, my husband and I have a code word. When we get to the point where we just can’t do anymore, where the kids are driving us mad or we’re stressed out with work or we’ve got a big deadline coming up, the phrase is simply, ‘My bucket is empty’, ‘I’ve got nothing more to give’, which signals to the other person that I need you to step in and just take hold of the reigns for a minute. Look after the kids or buy me some time or give me the time to get out for a run, or something like that.
“More than ever, we need to be conscious that we need to find things to fill our buckets.”
Because, you can’t pour from an empty bucket, and we’ve got children to look after in small confined spaces. We’ve got partners to support while they try to work, or when they’ve lost work, or whatever it is that’s going on for you at this moment in time. It’s tough. We are all in this together and some of us are really struggling right now. Filling your bucket is critical and however you can do it, find a way.
It’s the little things right now. It’s that cup of tea. It’s a moment’s peace on the toilet. It’s playing tag team with your partner.
We keep it really short. One hour with the kids, one hour work. One hour for me, one hour for you.
Yesterday, I had to put myself on a timeout. I felt like, I can’t do this, this is too hard. I’ve got to take a time out now, before I scream at the children, scream at my husband, before I just scream in general. So I just put myself in the bedroom, shut the door for five minutes. I needed to fill my bucket just enough to keep going. Those moments may come, and just know that those moments will pass as well. Just take what you need to fill your bucket.
Manage your expectations
Another point of advice that I would offer is that we, in these moments, need to manage our expectations. A lot of our mental space and energy right now is used up caring about people we love back home, in my case in New Zealand and Australia; caring about people; caring about what’s going on; wondering what’s going to happen next. You might have a goal for your self-isolation, such as writing a book, or learning a new language – and that’s great – but understand that a lot of your mental space and energy is going to be used up with what’s going on right now.
Just go easy on yourself, step back, and really allow yourself to breathe in, and take what you need as well. Also be a good boss, and limit your expectations on other people. If you’ve got people working for you, then know that everybody’s realities at the moment are very different. It’s not business as usual. People’s head spaces are occupied with other things.
Lay a solid foundation
Setting a solid foundation for your mental health and for your wellbeing at this time is crucial. That solid foundation is built on good sleep, exercise, eating right and social connection. As human beings, no matter how much we claim, as introverts, this is our happy place, we still need other people, so reach out and get that social connection.
Relax expectations of the kids, and of you as a parent
We need to relax our expectations of the children’s behaviour, and of our own, as a parent. The one tip I would give is to try to focus on the emotion and not on their behaviour.
If they’re acting out (my three-year-old is beating the crap out of his sister, he’s ruining her artwork, which breaks my heart and gets me really hot under the collar):
- If it’s a safety issue, manage the safety issue first. If they’re going to really hurt each other, then deal with that.
- Make sure you breathe. Always breathe. Charging in, ready to scream, only adds fuel to the fire.
- Do your best to look past their actions and to focus on their emotions.
They’re probably upset. They’re probably frustrated. They’re frightened or bored. Lots of emotions are bubbling up right now. Say what you see: “It looks like you’re upset right now. It looks like you’re frustrated”. Feeling understood can cut through that noise, the rage or the frustration that they’re feeling. For my son, it’s always, “Buddy, you look really frustrated right now. Do you need a cuddle?” And he just collapses into a cuddle every time.
It’s not being permissive, you’re just simply acting as their frontal lobes. Our job is to act as the prefrontal cortex for them right now. We’re helping them with their emotion, their impulse-control and their emotion regulation. You’re teaching them and showing them how to calm down. You’re telling them that it’s okay to be upset and it’s okay to feel angry and frustrated. But, what we need to do first is gain control of that emotion and then teach a different way to behave. Once they’ve calmed down, then help them to fix the behaviour.
- Make sure that you’re taking enough care of yourself so that you can be your best self in a confined space, with small children, or whatever it is your reality is.
- Manage your expectations. Don’t expect that you’re going to be uber-productive and that you’re going to achieve everything. Just be mindful that you, and people in your charge, have a lot on their plate.
- Your brains are occupied and your energy is occupied. Be gentle with yourselves.
- Routine helps. It helps with the kids and it also helpswith us managing our anxiety. Get up, get changed, eat a healthy breakfast, get as much fresh air as you can.
- Try to stay present.
In those moments when you’re feeling overwhelmed, try this:
- Take 5 deep breaths
- Find 4 colours – I can see pink, I can see blue, etc
- Appreciate 3 people in your life who make you smile
- Take 2 moments to check in with what it is you need right now
- Imagine the smell of something that fills your bucket – a nice fresh coffee, your favourite flower
It’s a simple reset. It’s just a grounding you in that moment.