The COVID-19 pandemic has had a massive impact on our lives, including placing a huge strain on some people’s family life and relationships.
Some families may still be dealing with the fallout as we move towards COVID-normal. Fortunately, there are things you can do to help get things back on track – and you don’t have to do it alone.
Here, we talk to one mother about how she and her teenage son reconnected during lockdown.
The stress, uncertainty and unprecedented challenges brought about by COVID-19 no doubt tested even the most harmonious of households. And with many families across Australia having juggled working and learning from home, many will have likely felt the strain at some point.
Conflict at home can negatively impact the whole family’s mental health and wellbeing, but the good news is that you can repair fragmented family relationships. And you don’t have to do it alone – as Samantha Webb discovered when her relationship with her teenage son hit a rocky patch during lockdown.
Balancing co-parenting, working from home and helping her two boys, Josh, 17, and Ben, 13, with their remote learning, well and truly tested Samantha’s mettle.
One main challenge she faced, along with no doubt many families across Australia during lockdown, was trying to keep her kids motivated with their home learning.
The biggest challenge and main source of conflict was definitely schoolwork.
“Making sure that everyone had their own work/study space and keeping on top of the basics – eating well, sleeping well and exercising enough helped. Likewise trying to take a bigger-picture mentality and seeing this tricky time as a blip.”
As well as trying to keep on top of the schoolbooks, tackling boredom was another challenge for Samantha and her boys during lockdown.
“Obviously, we really rely on the internet and it is a brilliant thing, but it’s also a daily challenge to keep the boys from gaming too much, especially Josh.”
To pull her boys away from their screens – and to bring some much-needed joy into lockdown life – Samantha tried to create “lots of nice little moments”.
“We did things like lighting the fire in the evening and toasting marshmallows, bike rides and watching movies together. Hopefully, when they look back on this time, they will remember that we had some fun times too.”
Don’t be afraid to reach out
Despite plenty of happy moments, lockdown life took its toll on Samantha and her eldest son Josh’s relationship.
“Our relationship had broken down to a point where we were not talking to each other at all. He ended up going to stay with his dad and that broke my heart,” says Samantha.
After following up on a suggestion from a colleague, Samantha signed up for the free one-on-one support sessions provided by ReachOut. Designed to support parents whose teenagers are having a tough time, the coaching sessions have been a gamechanger for Samantha and Josh.
“I had an incredible coach who offered really helpful, practical advice and helped me get back to basics. She asked me what success looked like for me when it came to Josh and I. Once I’d articulated that, we put some steps in place to get there and made an action plan.”
“Talking openly with someone really helped me identify what was going on for me and what I could control from my perspective. She also helped me understand what was going on for Josh from a teenager’s point of view.”
Josh’s preference for gaming instead of doing his schoolwork was at the root of most of the conflict, but instead of focusing on the problem and looking for a solution, Samantha turned her attention to rebuilding their relationship.
“Instead of trying to find a way to stop Josh gaming so much, the counsellor helped me concentrate on communicating and connecting – and it’s worked.”
“We're getting on really well and he’s opening up to me again. We’re really back on track, which is such a relief because with teenagers when the walls come up, a bit of panic sets in. You think you've lost them.”
Straight from the heart
When it comes to reopening lines of communication, Samantha found that you can’t go far wrong if it comes straight from the heart.
“While he was living at his dad’s and he wasn’t being very receptive, I would ring him every day and just say, ‘I love you, and I'm here for you if you need me’. In the end he only stayed away for a couple of weeks or so, but it felt like eternity!”
The counsellor helped me concentrate on communicating – and it’s worked.
Now that the family’s usual 50/50 living set-up is reinstated and Samantha and Josh have reconnected, Samantha continues to pay attention to how she communicates with Josh.
“I avoid lecturing him about gaming or schoolwork and instead just continue to focus on building our relationship. So, there’s a lot of ‘How's your day going? What you been up to?’. You know, just asking those leading questions that get conversations going, build trust and bring us back to each other.”
If you’re experiencing family conflict or challenges at home, headspace has a handy fact sheet about responding to family conflict with helpful advice and links to relevant services. You may also find Beyond Blue’s tips for communicating with your teenager and Raising Children’s Teens: Communicating & Relationships guide useful.