When Family Conflict Arises: How to Cope During COVID-19

Op-Ed by Patricia McGarry, PhD, LSW
Valley Youth House, Senior Vice President
Prevention, Child Welfare, & Children’s Behavioral Health Services

These are challenging and scary times and everyone is impacted in some way. For many, this means work from home and online schooling. For others, it means more time being together in close quarters. Because of the close proximity of family members due to stay-at-home orders, a very common and troubling occurrence is increased conflict in the home. It could be conflict between partners or spouses and/or between children. And the impact of this conflict can be potentially devastating to all involved.

At Valley Youth House, we’re no stranger to conflict. In fact, we are uniquely prepared for it. Our Intervention Programs measure their success by this key performance indicator: Reduction of Conflict. To help people cope with these uncertain times, we would like to offer some perspectives and tips on dealing with conflicts that may arise.

Many of the vulnerable youth and families we work with have experienced significant trauma. A time of uncertainty, like what we are experiencing now with the COVID-19 crisis, can heighten fear and anxiety for everyone, not just those with histories of trauma. And when fear and anxiety increase, conflict often follows suit. We know that right now conflict is not only occurring in families with risk factors, like drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and mental health diagnoses, it is happening everywhere. All families are considered at risk for conflict.

With the rapidly evolving conditions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone is affected in some way. Families are confined to their homes, feeling isolated, without natural support systems, like attending school, work, and seeing friends. There is worry about the virus, how so much of it is unknown, and concern about the danger it puts our loved ones in. Many are worried about loss of income and how they will afford living expenses and food for their families. It’s the perfect recipe for stress and anxiety and ultimately, conflict, to occur.

At Valley Youth House, we are firm believers that increased levels of conflict within a family does not mean that families do not care about one another. In fact, often, it’s because they care so much about one another that conflict can occur, and it is heightened stress and anxiety that leads to a breakdown in communication and an eruption of arguments. For example, disagreements about going out of the house during the stay-at-home orders, or differences in one’s social distancing boundaries, or about managing schoolwork at home can lead to yelling and fighting. At a time when life seems out of control, people will cling to what they perceive as under their control, like their household and those within it.  At the heart of the matter is the fact that loved ones are expressing concern, and care, and worry for one another. It’s from a place of love that conflict often arises.

At Valley Youth House we have a team of skilled and experienced counselors and therapists who are highly trained in how to work with youth and families in conflict. Mike Ramsey, M.S., LPC., is our program supervisor for our Family Intervention Program and Functional Family Therapy Program. He sees clients each day that struggle with tremendous conflict. He emphasizes that, just as you would take care of your body and build a strong immune system, you must take the same care for your mental health, as the state of your mental health will directly impact your relationships and how you communicate with others.

You may feel waves of emotions during this time and Ramsey says that this is normal. It is normal to be emotional. It is normal to be sad and angry and scared while watching the news. But Ramsey asks, “What are you doing with those emotions?  Are you taking them to a positive space or a negative space?” Are you bottling those emotions and lashing out on those close to you or are you recognizing your emotions and finding healthy outlets for them. You may not have your typical coping mechanisms available right now, like seeing friends or going to the gym, so it is imperative to find new and creative outlets, such as listening to music, meditating, or exploring nature. And you do not have to do this alone. Families are allowed to have fun together, too. This is a unique opportunity to find new ways to interact, while coping with life’s stresses together.  Use it as a way to build your family stronger.

Ramsey says, “Anxiety is a natural and protective physiological response. Anxiety is valuable in order to protect you from harm.” But how far does it go? When you are no longer basing your reactions on logic, anxiety can paralyze you.

Debbie Hess, M.A., Valley Youth House’s Program Supervisor for our Family Based Mental Health program says that when you feel overwhelmed by uncertainty, just take it one day at a time. She suggests that both adults and kids should keep as much of the same structure each day as possible. “We recognize that close proximity can lead to challenges like family conflict, anxiety, and stress,” so Hess recommends focusing on your breathing to slow yourself down when you are starting to feel those feelings come on. Ramsey says “discuss one topic at a time. Separate your arguments to one at a time. That will help situations from escalating.”

Safety planning is now more important than ever. Be intentional about coping strategies before conflicts arise. How will you cope? Where is a safe place to go to calm down? Hess says to leave the environment where the conflict occurs, if possible, and to make sure each family member has their own designated space to decompress. Go to a separate room or take a walk, for example. Do that before conflicts become a larger problem.
Hess emphasizes that especially during times like this, it is important to reach out for mental health support and assistance, even if you believe that your needs are minimal. Resources and supports are still available. For example, Valley Youth House now has telehealth options for many youth and families, so that they can continue to receive the important prevention and intervention services we offer.  We are still here for you and your families.

Although we may need to do our jobs differently now, Valley Youth House’s mission has not changed. We will do our best to prevent the spread of this virus, while ensuring that our youth and families continue to receive the highest quality social services that they deserve. Our vision that every young person belongs to a nurturing community is now more imperative than ever.

Valley Youth House is resilient – from the youth and families we serve each and every day, to the staff members who work tirelessly to support them. Our young people look to us to provide support and reassurance. They need Valley Youth House now more than ever.

For a list of mental health resources, please visit: www.valleyyouthhouse.org/covid-19-resources-for-youth-families

Patricia McGarry, PhD, LSW, is Valley Youth House’s Senior Vice President of Prevention, Child Welfare & Children’s Behavioral Health Services.  Valley Youth House is a social service organization that serves 22,000 youth and families each year in 18 Pennsylvania counties. Valley Youth House’s mission is to be the catalyst for youth to achieve their desired future through genuine relationships that support families, ensure safe places, and build community connection.