Fostering Family Connections While Socially Distant

2020 has brought many challenges and changes to the way we live, work and play. As families approach the holiday season, with upticks in coronavirus cases nationwide, there are lots of new variables families are dealing with. Should I travel to see extended family? Are there ways to safely celebrate the holidays in this new normal? We talk to pediatric psychologists Dr. Reo Newring and Dr. Michael Coutts with Children’s Behavioral Health team about how families can intentionally create and foster connections with relatives while physically apart.

Topic Breakdown

1:41 – Discussing changes this holiday season and setting boundaries
4:32 – Creating shared experiences — virtually
7:45 – Holiday traditions during the pandemic
9:40 – Technological strategies for connecting with family and friends
11:05 – How communicating virtually has changed connections and relationships
14:19 – Stress, the importance of self-care, and creating sensory experiences
17:36 – Balancing self-care with self-soothing
20:00 – Navigating difficult conversations
22:35 – Staying home and strengthening community connections


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2020 has brought many challenges and changes to the way we live, work, and play. As families approach the holiday season, with upticks in coronavirus cases nationwide, there are lots of new variables families are dealing with. Should I travel to see extended family? Are there ways to safely celebrate the holidays in this new normal? We talk to pediatric psychologists Dr. Reo Newring and Dr. Michael Coutts with Children’s Behavioral Health team about how families can intentionally create and foster connections with relatives while physically apart.

Dr. Reo Newing: Hello and welcome. My name is Dr. Reo Newring. I’m a psychologist over at Children’s Behavioral Health and I’m here with my co-conspirator, who can introduce himself.

Dr. Mike Coutts: I’m Mike Coutts. I’m also a psychologist with Children’s Behavioral Health. And we’re going to be talking a little bit today about fostering connections while socially distancing in this holiday season.

Dr. Newring: Yeah, this whole COVID thing is putting a real damper on our holiday plans, right?

Dr. Coutts: Yeah, a lot of plans.

Discussing changes this holiday season and setting boundaries

Dr. Newring: What are you telling your patients right now about how to — how things are going to be different this year? And how to set some boundaries?

Dr. Coutts: I’m not necessarily telling them how things are going to be different, so much as that things are going to be different.

This obviously is an unprecedented time for everyone. I don’t think anyone can really predict how it’s going to impact every individual person, because it impacts them differently. I know that you and I talked about, just a lot of patients that we see — I’ve got some kids that love this, you know? They are totally embracing the social distancing, the lack of constant social engagement. And then there are kids that are, you know, having a harder time with this. So I think it really does speak to how this whole situation impacts everyone a little bit differently.

And so really it’s just 1) Getting kids to think about, “What is it that you want out of these holiday type situations? What’s normal for you?” And then crafting, “Okay, how can we kind of make it adapt to what you’re looking for within the changes that are occurring?”

When it comes to talking and setting boundaries, again, everyone’s a little bit different on what those boundaries are. So I kind of feel them out on what they think. And if warranted or if they desire, offer some psycho-education on health and how to respond to this type of situation. But for the most part, I’m letting them guide based on what they’re feeling. Then we craft. “Okay, how do we want to express? How do we want to adapt that — again, adapt to the situation that we’re in?”

Dr. Newring: Yeah. And something I’m seeing a lot is just, sort of general sadness and anxiety coming into these holidays. “Can we even have a Thanksgiving?” Or, “How can we have a Thanksgiving?” Or, “What does it even mean?” You know, I’ve heard some mournful grandparents chiming in about, “Zoom is just not the same,” or, “I’m not very computer-savvy, so I don’t really know how to do a Zoom thing.” It’s been kind of sad.

Dr. Coutts: Yeah, I think that the social disconnect that we’re going to talk about. It’s just — it’s so different than what we’ve traditionally done. I think there is an age difference too, in terms of how some of my younger families with younger parents are much more open to these types of things. And then kids certainly have taught me more about Zoom more than anyone in our clinic. With parents and older grandparents too, it’s just — it’s so different and such a different way to connect.

Creating shared experiences — virtually

Dr. Coutts: I work with a lot more boys, probably. And you know, they interact with their friends on video games. So for them, Zooming with their grandparents is just like a conversation, vs. for the grandparents, it’s really not — it’s you know, you Can’t touch, you Can’t smell, you Can’t feel.

You can’t do all those different sensory things that we’re so used to.

Dr. Newring: I’ve been thinking a lot about how to use the five senses to really foster connections. You know, if all you have is the telephone, that’s fine. Use the telephone. If you have access to something where you can actually see the people and hear them, do that. Any kind of video conferencing you can find. FaceTime, Zoom, WebEx — there’s a gazillion out there now.

I was also thinking about doing some shared experiences on the same timetable. I personally have family members out in California and Washington. So if we’re going to do a call, I need to be aware that they’re at 10 a.m., while I’m at noon. But we could bake the same cookies that we’ve always baked as a family at the same time. Sharing that connection over the distances and time, if that makes sense.

Dr. Coutts: Definitely. My son just turned 3 and we had a birthday party over Zoom. My family and my wife’s family, like our parents. We coordinated it where my wife was Facetiming and I was Zooming. We did presents — you know, he opened his presents. Again, it’s not the same, but it was a way to share that same connection. And then we did cake at different times with the different parents because of the time differences there. He was super happy to have cake twice. So that was good. But for them, they were both able to share in that experience, even if it wasn’t exactly the same.

Dr. Newring: Yeah. I think it’s a really good point to remember that as difficult as it is to set all that stuff up, it’s totally worth it. The more effort you put in, the more joy and connection you get out.

Dr. Coutts: Yeah, before we even set this — we had a vague idea of what this thing was about, the very first thing I had on my jotted list of notes was planning and scheduling. The importance of like — you really have to plan and schedule, because especially when you’re trying to coordinate a Zoom — like you don’t know where other people are or what they’re doing.

And so yes, technologies allow for a lot of convenience. But at the same time, you don’t want to undermine the importance of planning and scheduling, like setting up time zones. Of course, noting the differences there.

Finding something that works also gives that anticipation feeling, too, that looking forward to holiday things. I think, at least for me, I’ve always enjoyed that anticipation. So it’s another way to kind of foster that. Because, you know, “Oh, we’re talking to Nana and Papa on Sunday at 11. This is going to be great.”

Dr. Newring: Right, knowing what you’re looking forward to.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about the other side of it. The retrospective side.

Holiday traditions during the pandemic

Dr. Newring: That something that I — a lot of families do, I think, is during these holidays, they sit around and talk about what used to be. How traditions have changed over time or, you know, that funny thing that Aunt Sally always does. I think keeping up those verbal storytelling traditions — we have to keep them going, because this year, some people — that’s all they have. So really putting effort into that, too. “Hey, remember when…” and everybody gets to laugh about it. Or maybe looking at the really old photographs. If you can share the files, then do.

Dr. Coutts: Yeah, I think that speaks to one of the questions about — do we keep old traditions? Or is 2020 a time for new traditions? And I think, yes. As much as you can, identify the important ones that you want to. Then, okay, how do we adapt that?

Like you said, making cookies. Maybe there’s specific cookies that you guys always have, but maybe you’re not going to be able to go see some of your other family. So again, that’s where you can schedule a time to bake them. We’re all having them. That helps with kind of the sensory thing. The taste and the smells and sharing recipes. The things you can do to make it feel the same, even though it’s not.

While also, if you’re interested in new traditions, make new traditions. It kind of goes into the mindset of looking at it in “What can we still do?” instead of, “What Can’t we do?” And not focusing too much on what we can’t do, so much as, okay here’s what we still can do. We can still tell those stories, even if we’re not all together around the fire. It’s like, we’re just all around the Zoom!

Dr. Newring: Right. Although, I was also thinking — you have to keep your expectations realistic. It Can’t be, “This is the year I’m going to learn how to make a triple souffle.” I mean, you can if you have the energy and the expertise. But be careful setting yourself up too much for disappointment.

Dr. Coutts: Right.

Technological strategies for connecting with family and friends

Dr. Newring: What are the technological or strategic ways that you’ve been thinking about for connecting with families?

Dr. Coutts: So, so much of this, honestly, is what I’ve done myself in the last 9 months. And that’s where a lot of my notes that I jotted down came from, like the planning and scheduling.

Since we started telehealth through Children’s, that first week I set up a Zoom date with a bunch of my friends from high school. We’ve done that every week, every Friday night, with like two exceptions. Where we all get together and we plan it. And it’s the same kind of night. There’s about eight of us, but sometimes it’s just two of us, sometimes it’s four of us, sometimes it’s all eight.

So it’s just setting that up and using…again, I’d never done Zoom prior to us using it for telehealth. And now I spend all of my day on Zoom. I Zoom with my parents every Thursday. We did trivia every Wednesday with a group of friends. It’s just, “Okay, these are things we enjoy, so how can we do it over Zoom?”

It doesn’t have to be Zoom, I just keep saying that because that’s what we’re using right now and that’s what we use every day. But it can be Skype, it can be WebEx, it can be Facetime, it can be the telephone. I mean, it doesn’t have to be video conferencing, but that’s always preferable to see who you’re talking to.

How communicating virtually has changed connections and relationships

Dr. Newring: Do you find that how you communicate with people that you’ve always known — I mean, you’ve always talked to these people. But now that we’re in a pandemic, and I don’t know if you sort of feel that — sense of uncertainty that looms. But has it changed your connections with people?

Dr. Coutts: Like with my friends, it’s probably changed it for the better, just because we consistently talk. We would talk on the phone periodically, but to get everyone together was rare, unless it was a holiday back home. So we kind of moved that to a normal basis.

I would say with my parents, it’s a lot different. Because we don’t get to see them. Like I said, I have a 3-year-old. So they’re missing, essentially, a year of seeing him and getting him to develop. He is making those connections via Zoom, but he’s also 3 and trying to use a computer to connect.

That part has been more challenging and harder on me emotionally. Because I know it’s hard for them. And it’s hard for me, obviously, not being able to connect with them the same. But as an adult, I feel like we still communicate pretty well. I don’t feel like it’s changed as much for us except for that aspect of what it means to be missing that time with him.

Dr. Newring: Yeah. I think I tend to be a little bit more touchy-feely in my relationships in general. I’ve been thinking a lot more about — telling people what they mean to me. This is probably the year to say, “Hey, do you remember that wonderful trip that we took however long ago?” Or, “Hey, whenever I hear your voice, it reminds me of this other wonderful thing that warms my heart.” But remembering to say what people mean. Remembering the “I love you’s. Again, I’m super touchy-feely like that. That seems really important to me this holiday season.

Dr. Coutts: That’s actually a great point I hadn’t thought about or hadn’t really thought about talking about here. But I would say that has changed for me. I feel like I’m probably less touchy-feely and emotionally expressive, more so-so. But then there have been times with my friends where we’ve all kind of been a bit more vulnerable in expressing what’s going on in our lives. I think one, from the consistency, but also because there is a little bit of a distance. As males, traditionally, we’re not always the most secure and expressive with the emotional aspects. But that has come up a couple times, where I’ve felt like, “That probably wouldn’t happen without some of that distance.”

And obviously with my parents, I’ve been more aware. So I have been making more of a point to be more expressive with them, whereas maybe in the past, it would have been a hug. That’s my way of communication. Well, now I Can’t do that. So now I’m like, “Okay, now I really need to be more — more verbose in my wording.” And more skilled there, when before, it was probably more physical ways of affection. I Can’t do that, so I’m trying to, with my parents at least, trying to balance that at least with more verbal recognition and awareness and expression, vs. the touch and that. So that’s essentially a really good point I hadn’t thought about.

Stress, the importance of self-care, and creating sensory experiences

Dr. Newring: I mean, this stuff is so stressful. The pandemic is stressful. The holidays can be stressful. The two of them on top of each other — I Can’t even…I mean, there’s a lot of worrying that’s going on about what’s going to happen, how it’s going to go. Have you thought much about self-care? Are you talking to your patients much about that?

Dr. Coutts: Yeah, I think a lot more so for the ones I’m constantly talking with about self-care, I think I’m emphasizing it more. I Can’t talk more about mindfulness and the value of practice with meditation and mindfulness. We talked earlier about the sensory aspect of things. And so I’m hammering that more than I normally hammer that home, because it is something you can take anywhere. It’s something that you can have at any time. Regardless of your situation, it’s always something that’s available, if you will.

Dr. Newring: More specifically, like, I’m thinking — you bake whatever you bake, and then there’s the smells of baking and the taste of baking. What are the other sensory strategies that you can take with you?

Dr. Coutts: Pictures, reviewing photos, sharing them. To continue with the technology thing, Google Share — you can share photos. You can set up a time of even just reviewing photos with a family member. We want to talk about — “We’re talking about this period of time, let’s pull up the pictures from that. Let’s go through that or let’s share.” You know, “I’ve got the copies on my computer. Let me share that with you and then we can go through that.”

Certainly reviewing memories and times through sight, but then also trying to — again, if you can incorporate more of those. Like the smell and the taste. Even the sound, just hearing your family members or the important people around you — hearing their voices and hearing those more frequently.

Dr. Newring: Sharing a Spotify playlist.

Dr. Coutts: Yeah, yeah, music — that’s great! Especially, if you’re trying to connect, like, “What are you listening to that’s new?” Because when kids tell me about music, it’s like, “Okay, I’m going to listen to that and see what that’s all about, and see if I want to keep doing that or not.

“My parents send us — send my son books that they record. So we’ve got a holiday — we’ve got a “Night Before Christmas.” And you read it and it records your voice reading the book. So then they send us that, so then it’s not the same, again, as being able to sit there with them and read it. But we’ll read that — or we’ll play that at night with the book — and every time you turn the page, it starts the recording. For Easter last year, they did one where my dad and my mom alternated pages. My son loves that. So those are different options that I never would have thought of.

But that’s a way to, again, connect and keep for them — keep their voices in his mind and keep him feeling connected.

Balancing self-care with self-soothing

Dr. Newring: When I think about self-care, some of it for me is time by myself. So what do I need to heal me and make sure I’m at my best?

I love taking a walk at night. Exercise is so important. Doing your breathing, doing your mindfulness, practice, like you were saying. Being as healthy as you can. I think self-care ends up following into two categories. One is like healthy behaviors, and the other is self-soothing but maybe not as healthy. Alcohol, sweets kind of go into that category. And balancing both forms of self-care. It’s a long holiday season to get through.

Dr. Coutts: Yes, especially if you’re making a lot of cookies.

Dr. Newring: Right.

Dr. Coutts: Yes, I think that awareness is really key. Is this self-care or is this self-soothing? And how much of the self-soothing am I doing? There’s certainly very many benefits and values to self-soothing, but there’s also a much finer line between doing too much self-care vs. too much self-soothing. There’s certainly a finer line with doing self-soothing.

Dr. Newring: Right.

Dr. Coutts: So moderation would be, always, something that we talk about. But what does that mean? That awareness is key for knowing what that is for moderating that.

Dr. Newring: I like that point, of just paying attention. Listening to yourself. What do you need right now? How do you get through this in the best way possible? How do we make this the coolest pandemic holiday season we can have?

Dr. Coutts: I think, too, like we talked earlier about — being able to express that. Being able to express that to others. “I need some time for myself,” or “I need this time to recharge or benefit myself.”

And then, as I always put things, in terms of talking with kids and parents — you’re also modeling that as a parent for your kids. Being able to express, “Hey, this is really hard for me. I’m going to need to take a walk for 20 minutes to clear my head or have some time for myself. Some peace and quiet.”

You’re at least modeling for them how to communicate that and that it’s okay to say, “I need this,” or to ask for help. So that’s really a nice way to model it, but also to exhibit and practice it yourself.

Dr. Newring: Absolutely agree.

Navigating difficult conversations

Dr. Coutts: So there might be difficult conversations during this time as well, where you do have to set some boundaries about what’s expected from yourself and for other family members. Whether that be, “I’m not going to come to Thanksgiving or the holidays because of COVID and the pandemic, because I don’t feel that it’s safe.” Or, “I’m not comfortable using Zoom or other technologies. I don’t want to do those.”

I think being very direct and upfront from the beginning about your feelings, and being very clear about why you don’t feel comfortable either using Zoom or other technologies, or why you don’t feel comfortable going. Being able to address that right away and upfront. And forceful in the sense of saying it with confidence and conviction, but not rudely and not aggressively. I know that’s a fine line, too. But being very upfront.

Also, understanding that it might lead to some hard feelings. And understanding that the other person might be hurt. Being able to hear and accept that that person is hurt. Because that’s hard to hear for anybody. And still staying firm with what you believe and what you feel, and trying your best to — like all the things we talked about so far — how do we accommodate and how do we adapt?

Dr. Newring: Right. And I was thinking about the principle of, “Close the door, open the window.” If you say, “I’m not going to do this thing, but what can we do instead?” “I’m not going to fly to Washington this year, but we can Zoom, we can Facetime, we can bake the same cookies at the same time. We can do all these other things that will keep us connected.” Or, “I’m not comfortable using Zoom, but we could still use the telephone.” I think if you can offer some sort of an alternative, that helps a lot. It helps soften the blow.

Dr. Coutts: And I do know one of the other talking points was how do we talk with kids about that. I think being very honest. Developmentally appropriate. Not going to talk to my 3-year-old about the pandemic and why we Can’t go see grandparents — it’s more of just, “There are certain things going on right now that we’re not able to do these things this year. It’s just for this year and we’re going to make the best of it. Here’s all the things we can do, even if we Can’t do,” like you were saying, “the other things.” Being direct — but also, again, be approaching it sooner rather than letting it drag on in ambiguity.

Staying home and strengthening community connections

Dr. Newring: Any other thoughts about holidays and how you’re going to spend them?

Dr. Coutts: We’re going to do a lot of staying home. And we’re going to be a lot of social distancing while trying to — like all of these things that we’ve talked about. Just trying to make that happen. Because it is just a different time.

And obviously, like, my parents are older and my wife’s parents are older, so we don’t want to take any chances with that. So we’re using everything we can think of, which is really great because it’s really helped prepare for this conversation.

Dr. Newring: Right.

Dr. Coutts: Yeah, what about you guys?

Dr. Newring: Yeah, it’s — we just need to set up the schedule of Skype calls. We have our small family traditions that we’ve always done. And then, sort of, fitting those in with the family connections that I’m hoping we’ll get to do this year.

Dr. Coutts: We talked about connecting with family, and not everyone has that family base to pull on. So I also thought about different ways where — just connecting with people.

You know, there are lots of — whatever your interests may be, I just picked a couple — you can do online book clubs. So if you’re really interested in certain authors or certain styles of reading or writing, getting into that.

I also think volunteering, especially around the holidays, is such a valuable way to give back. And again, that might look a lot different because of COVID, but it’s still another way to connect with your community. It’s another way to give back and really, you know — with Thanksgiving coming up, focusing on gratitude and what we’re able to do to help others, and getting support ourselves.

So I think anything that we can do to connect with our community virtually or, depending on how you feel about in-person, being able to do that in a safe manner. Really focusing on giving back and working with others I think can really benefit — especially that self-healing, self-time if you don’t have that family to pull on.

Dr. Newring: Well thank you so much for listening. You’ve been a great audience.

Dr. Coutts: Thanks, guys.


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