Demands on parents during the COVID-19 pandemic have skyrocketed. The disruptions and shifts in daily routines required to minimize the risks of corona virus have left many feeling lonely, burdened, and stretched beyond their limits. The sudden loss of in-person contact, assistance and social support normally provided by schools, workplaces, daycares, sports, and other activities, has been significant and challenging. Meanwhile, the deluge of online attempts to replace these losses has, in many cases added to, rather than alleviated, the stress. Yet amid the chaos, there may be an untapped resource for mitigating stress – your family members. To access this resource, all you may need to do is stay regulated and ask. 

“I need your help” taps into an innate drive that all humans have: to be connected to one another. We are social beings who depend on one another to survive. Consequently, social support is a powerful antidote to stress. Our brains release feel-good neurotransmitters when we help and receive help from others. Research shows that helping others boosts happiness. This innate mechanism is easiest to observe in small children who often respond with enthusiasm and excitement when asked to help and be included in the activities of those around them. Teens and tweens also benefit from helping even though their eye rolls, heavy sighs and complaints seem to tell a different story. 

The way you ask makes a difference in how someone experiences the act of helping. When you ask for help from a regulated, rather than a reactive, state you send a message that the person being asked is competent, has value and can be counted on as part of the solution. Everyone prefers this type of message to one that makes them the focus of the problem and they are far more likely to cooperate and work on problem solving when they hear it. 

Regulation is the key to communicating this message. When you are reactive, you are more likely to communicate “You are a burden and a problem.” Such messages, delivered either overtly or subconsciously, can kick in a reactive, threat response from others that lowers the likelihood of cooperation and blocks access to the social benefits of helping. It can also magnify the appeal of the fast, easy fun of the online world as a retreat from the burden of shame, blame, criticism and conflict. And, although it can be tempting to “do it yourself” rather than “fight about the screens,” finding a proactive, regulated way to ask and receive help can build the skills of resilience and stress tolerance that mitigate the risks associated with screen time. Below are two examples that we hope will illustrate how the same request, made in a different state, can lead to very different outcomes.

Asking for help from a reactive state:

You’ve been [playing with screens/interrupting me] all day while I’ve been trying to work. You need to [do something other than stare at a screen/occupy yourself instead of bothering me] all day. There are plenty of things you can do to help around here. Why don’t you ever think about helping me around the house instead of [picking up your device/making things harder for me]? I’m fed up. Empty the dishwasher. Now. It’s the least you can do.  If you give me any attitude, I’ll [take away your phone/won’t read you a story tonight]. 

In this scenario children are likely to feel disconnected, shamed, blamed and criticized for being the source of the problem rather than connected, empowered and motivated to be a part of the solution. Even if they comply with the request, they are not likely to experience the full benefits of helping.

Asking for help from a proactive/regulated state:

It’s going to be a long day. I have a lot of work to do. I’d much rather play and spend time with you but there are some important meetings and tasks at work that I have to pay attention to. While I’m working you can be a big help by doing some of the chores on the family chore list in between your screen activities/play time. I will look forward to hearing about how you spent your morning when we eat lunch and play/talk for a bit. If you run out of ideas or need help with something at other times it would be super helpful if you look at the chore list and the activity idea list and try to help each other before interrupting me. 

In this example children are far more likely to feel connected, empowered and motivated to try to be part of the solution. Although there are still likely to be interruptions and lapses in follow-through, the proactive plans and expectations can go a long way to reducing the likelihood of the kind of reactivity that interferes with connection, cooperation and learning. And, in this scenario, children will be far more likely to reap the benefits that come with helping.

As the disruptive demands of living amid the risks of Corona Virus continue to impact your family, you can continue to cope with the stress by using our formula – Unplug from Worry, Plug in to Your Kids and Teach Skills like the skill of asking for, receiving and giving help. When everyone feels more calm, capable and connected, stress is easier to manage. And when everyone helps out, the demands become more manageable. You can do this, together.