The corona crisis has closed what should be open and opened what should be closed. A healthy family is an open system with vibrant intercommunications with society. In order to prevent spread of the virus, families are more closed than would be optimal. We will address this heavily discussed aspect of the crisis in the next installation.
Here I want to address the more subtle – and perhaps insidious – opening of what should be closed. Parents take upon themselves a degree of certainty with regard to the family’s basic security in the present and plans for the future. Generally parents feel reasonably sure that a recognizable and predictable reality supports their certainty. For example, the walls of home keep intruders out, the future stands in continuity with the present. The Corona crisis interrupts both security and continuity.
The role that a parent takes with regard to uncertainty needs to fit with the role that a child needs from his parent. In a large family each parents will need to be four different parents in accord with the developmental needs of children:
- Under the age of 2 or 3, babies simply require soothing, perhaps extra practice in soothing rituals.
- Under the age of 5, children need reassurance. All external “reality” is mediated by the approach that the parent takes towards reality. The young child needs to hear, “I will not let anything bad happen to you or to any of us. I will protect us all.” The pre-schooler needs a personal reassurance
- Up until about 11 or 12 children need a more complex but no less certain statement: “I understand what is happening and I know what is best for us to do. This will keep us safe.” This corresponds to the way school age children learn answers to questions, not open questions. The parent knows the question and its answer.
- Over 12, children need to participate in learning how to approach uncertainty. The parent guides thinking, and the activity of thinking (“mentalization”) itself is reassuring because it creates the feeling of mastery as an activity, not an answer. “Here is how different people think about it and here is how I choose to proceed and here is my thinking.”
What is true of certainty is true of continuity:
- Babies – continuity is created by repetition of soothing rituals.
- Pre-schoolers – “Tomorrow we will continue with protection, it worked today and it will keep p[rotecting us tomorrow.”
- School age children – “Each day brings a new question and we will continue to know the answers every day, the answers may change but the fact of knowing the answers does not.”
- Adolescents – “We have to continue to think and rethink, if our thoughts change that means that we can keep thinking new thoughts as new information comes our way. Thinking is not to always be right, but to always be able to rethink.”
The role of “closing” what Corona has opened places a great strain on the differentiation level of parent-child relations.
- Parents in large families are called upon to function on the whole spectrum of roles simultaneously.
- Parents are hard pressed to recall that while they act as if they “know” they know that they do not know.
- Children will see parents acting differently to each age level and this may create confusion.
- Parents may disagree among themselves about what sort of parents each child needs.
- Children with special needs may need special variations on the restoration of certainty and continuity.
As family therapists we focus on the regulation that is needed and the intersubjectivity that is possible within each dyad. We can help each parent to “zoom in” on communication with each child, and try to see their communication from the side of the parent (empathic loop). This may seem slow or tedious but the level of differentiation in the family depends on the activation of intersubjectivity- as appropriate – in each dyad. That is where co-creation is alive. Therapists often find that if they begin with a look at the easier dyads, and help parents to appreciate the importance of the co-creation there, parents can be helped to rise to the challenge of the dyads in which communication has become more difficult. Here are a few clinical matters to keep in mind:
- Help the parent(s) to feel secure in the communications that they define for each child (or sibling groups). The “feedback” about how this is working will not necessarily be immediate and parents should not mine their children for approval.
- If parents disagree – in a realm where there is room for diversity to say the least – it is practical to have the parents decide together on which approach they want to try first. According to the results they can always try the differing opinion.
- “Communication” about a crisis is not a one-shot performance. Especially younger children need a more continuous restatement. Older children benefit from a rolling conversation which includes daily new thoughts and feelings, and dreams. This is process more than content.
- The main thrust here is to help parents to regain their own parental choices about certainty and continuity in their family. This of course differs from the far to open uncertainty about the virus out in the world and the media. Parents choose how to close what the virus has opened.