23 Apr 2020

Blended families under lockdown

From Coronavirus Podcast, 8:00 am on 23 April 2020

How are parents and children in blended and separated families coping with the lockdown? Plus, the government faces tough questions on it's support of GPs, pharmacies and the aged care sector.

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Professor Paul Jose is from the School of Psychology at Victoria University. His research interests explore how children and adolescents cope with the problems in their lives.

"Literally, nobody has done this before," he says. "This is a once in a lifetime, maybe a once in two lifetimes kind of event. When you're talking about quite young children, say under the age of 10, they're going to have some difficulty understanding the reason for the lockdown.

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Photo: RNZ Insight / Rebekah Parsons-King

"Over the age of 10 they can understand the necessity for sheltering in place and self isolation. They can see the news, they can hear reports of people seriously ill from this disease or dying, so it's much more convincing for them."

So how does one manage the changes the response to the Covid-19 coronavirus requires with children in tow, particularly for blended families? Prof Jose has some tips:

1. Be honest

"You have to be honest because children can understand if you're hiding something or if you're being dishonest so if somebody in the family is ill or suffered an injury or is in some kind of danger separate from the coronavirus, they would pick up on that as well.

"Families are systems where emotional feelings are transmitted and most kids pick up on these kinds of emotions pretty quickly whether they're positive or negative.

2. Be available and present

"The immediate family if they are doing activities together if they are emotionally available and supportive to the child, I think a lot of the ill effects … can be prevented or blunted."

3. Establish routines

"One of the big unknowns in this situation is the indeterminacy of how long this lockdown is going to go.

"Every day seems like the last day, every tomorrow won't look like it's going to be like today. That's disconcerting to children as well because children need schedules - they need to have a sense of routine. So it's important that the family at home create its own set of routines.

4. For blended families, keep in contact

child uses a Tablet PC, hand in focus, without face

Photo: 123RF

"Most children who are fairly resilient and capable of coping with a dislocation like this are going to be fine. There will be some individuals who are a little more fragile and being absent from the other part of their family, like a father who is not currently in their household can make them unhappy and make them anxious and depressed.

"I would recommend in those situations that you find a way to talk almost every day through Zoom, Skype or on the phone."

5. Physical contact is important

"One of the things that children need, that we don't often think about, is a hug.

"Missing a parent oftentimes is hearing or voice feeling their touch, being in the room with them and so there can be some intangible loss felt by a young child that we as adults may not completely understand.

"Older children and adolescents can generally cope with that kind of absence a little better."

6. Be flexible, adapt to their needs

"I guess my recommendation is for parents to do a little introspection about what they think their children particularly need. One child might need structure, another child might do better with more free time. Another child may need a hug. Another child may need 'doing an activity together' like cooking some food, so be creative; listen to your child; try to spend some time with them.

7. Have alone time, and manage your own stress levels

"One of the big dangers I might say is for parents who are not working who are at home with their children 24/7 there's an additional stress, if you will, about being with each other all the time. Parents need to be aware of that as well.

"They may need to factor in some alone time for the child or for the parent. Now, if the parents are in some cases both working and out of the home doing essential services, that's a different situation - and that in and of itself has its own stressors because the child is home and maybe missing the parent as opposed to being at home, taken care of. I suspect that that's not a common situation however."


The reality of lockdown for blended families: Roger

Roger is a single dad to a six-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter. He lives in Wellington, and downtime away from his three businesses means he has more time to spend with his kids...

"I'm busy, but I'm also a really dedicated father. Family is everything to me ... we 50/50 co-share the children. At the moment it is trying times.

"It's hard for the children because they're not going to school, their routine's been messed up quite heavily, no sports, so it's pretty demanding … we've been trying our best to try and keep it as normal as possible.

"I hate to say it, you know, they're not really enjoying going between the two houses - I think because this is the family home and their dog's here; my niece is staying with us - so we've got a little bit more interaction whereas their mother is in her own bubble by herself. It's challenging.

"My daughter did say yesterday 'why can't mum just stay here and we just stay in one house' … I would really like everyone to just stay in the one family home [but] I've got to respect the wishes of the mother. It's hard for everyone, and especially for the little dog because he missed his kids.

"I guess it's just not trying to confuse the children too - that mum and dad are back under the roof and then maybe getting excited that mom and dad might get back together.

"The other hard thing too with this is managing device time."


The reality of lockdown for blended families: Emma

Emma is a mum with a complicated situation involving multiple families in different locations...

"My partner has two older children who are 12 and 10, they live with the mother full time and we have them every second weekend and we've had to fight really hard to get that.

"Then I have a daughter who goes to her father every week on / week off, and then we have three children at home between us, so, the older children's mother has other children as well and her partner has other children.

"I think it's made us think about what was going to be the best approach to take - for both the safety of the children and all families.

"We're also having to make some really difficult decisions for my daughter - who's week on, week off - she's only with her father, and that's it, and he's in the same community.

"On the other hand, my partner had to make a more difficult decision for his older children who are in a different community who we don't see very often - the risk that the family also has other people in it, and it might be in the best interest for them not to come to our house during lockdown.

"They've got so used to that routine, to not see them for four weeks or potentially longer than that is difficult to take, but we have agreed to make sure we have video chats with them as much as possible with all the children because they're struggling to understand why can my daughter come but they can't.

"For us, we don't get on very well with the children's mother. It's very much 'your days are what your days are', there's no flexibility there. So I think … 'no, they can't come' is an easy decision for her.

"Today is normally the day we would go and pick them up so, you know, my partner's feeling very emotional about it."

Presenter: Indira Stewart

Interviewer: Sonia Sly

Producers: Sonia Sly, Jesse Chiang, William Ray

Executive producer: Tim Watkin 

Sound engineer: Adrian Holly


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