We need to talk: About families in lockdown

Pic Oldiefan from Pixabay

Over the past three weeks, EastLondonLines has examined different aspects of mental health under lockdown that might be causing people a problem, alongside counsellors from Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Lewisham. This week, ELL discusses another aspect of mental health during the coronavirus pandemic with a therapist who has practices based in both Hackney and Tower Hamlets – how to manage a family after nearly two months of lockdown.

Ambika Shekhawat has been working as a therapist for the past six years at practices in both Shoreditch and Canary Wharf.

She provides therapy for couples and individuals by using a psychoanalytical and psychodynamic methodology – sessions involve investigating past relationships with parental figures to try and gain an understanding of what happened earlier in life that may now be impacting present relationships.

She said that some of her clients have children and that many of them have reached a crescendo of problems that centres around parenting under lockdown.

“Having both parents at home with slightly different parenting styles has been quite challenging for a lot of people” Shekhawat says. 

She says that some people are finding that these differing styles of parenting in the household are causing friction in their relationships.

“I’m finding more and more people are reaching out with their children in mind because of course the pressures of juggling two careers and also home schooling or having a child [who is] in nursery at home 24 hours a day is very difficult. It brings out a lot of dynamics around whose career is taking the forefront, who is making the sacrifices, who cooks meals and what are the traditional gender roles” she says.

Shekhawat says that these issues have been put under a microscope due to the intimate and pressurised nature of lockdown. She believes it is likely that many couples have had these issues since they first had a child but have never been in a situation where they have been forced to identify them and then confront them.

“It has been boiling under the surface for a while. Having children of course changes the couple dynamic drastically. You go from [being a] two, to a three, to a four and that transition is not easy, for anyone. It’s particularly difficult when your idea of a couple relationship has been turned on its head, so when one partner is excluded because one parent is with the child a lot more, one parent ends up doing more to some extent for the family, the other one [can] feel left out on the fringes. When [the issues] haven’t been addressed and you’re all put together in an environment like lockdown, it comes up to the surface. You can’t ignore it anymore” she says.

Shekhawat acknowledges that discussions between couples around parenting can be difficult but says that approaching any fundamental issues within the family unit through the relationship of the parents is the best way to address them. 

She describes the family unit as an inverted triangle with the couple at the top of that and says the relationship between parents and their children can improve if couples have those difficult discussions about parenting styles.

“’Why is it you want to parent in a particular way? What is your thinking? How were you parented?’ These are questions and thoughts we don’t usually express very easily with our partners but it can be extremely beneficial if someone understands you are reacting a certain way because that’s the experience you had, or you’re trying to do the opposite of the experience you had. It fosters a bit more empathy. That’s a discussion then, rather than a fight or an argument” she says.

Addressing these individual thoughts and problems as a couple means that subsequently, parents will approach issues with their children as a unit instead of separate people according to Shekhawat. She believes this will have a knock-on effect on how families are parented and the behaviour of the children.

Counsellor Ambika Shekhawat Pic Ambika Shekhawat

Another problem that may arise during lockdown for individuals, couples and families is a sense of claustrophobia from not just being stuck indoors all day, but from being around our loved ones constantly.

“Is this normal or acceptable? Absolutely. You can’t function without having a sense of self and separation. If the couple feel like they’ve blurred into one individual, you have no separation in your mind between you and your partner. So, having some amount of separation is important. When you don’t have that, it is understandable to feel claustrophobic” Shekhawat says.

She states that these feelings of claustrophobia may be more prevalent in people who have experienced a level of intrusion in their early life from a parent who may have been controlling. She says that having those feelings again now as a result of your family’s presence can cause people to feel overwhelmed, frustrated, anxious and sometimes angry and depressed.

There are practical methods that can be installed during lockdown to alleviate these invasive feelings, methods from which Shekhawat dips into her own personal experience to discuss.

“I think having a schedule, having a chore chart, having a breakdown of activities and who takes responsibility for what makes it a lot more transparent and a lot easier to manage because the expectations are clearer” she says, elaborating that it can be ideal to have children involved in these activities too.

She also recommends carving out individual time for people to spend on their own. This can take the form of having a daily walk that may only last for 20 minutes, but she believes that this short period of time will relieve many people of mental pressures and claustrophobia, particularly if they are in a small apartment.

However, for some people, the levels of mental intensity and anxiety may not be manageable through these methods and some families may need to seek external help if a couple cannot deal with the problem themselves. 

For this scenario, Shekhawat says that speaking to a therapist is her first port of call. She also recommends organisations, such as the Tavistock Relationships, who offer a variety of online information and support, as well as counselling sessions for couples.

Shekhawat raises concerns over another problem that may be occurring at the moment. She says that some families may be suffering from domestic abuse, which can be even more difficult under current lockdown rules as people have no way of physically escaping an abusive person.

She states that abuse can come in the form of physical violence and the harder to detect emotional abuse and the victim can be of any gender. She says that the first step in dealing with this problem not just under lockdown, but anytime is for people to identify what is happening to them and understanding that their situation is abnormal.

“The first port of call, I’d say is always talking to someone because it’s not always easy to recognises the signs yourself but when someone else talks through it, they point it out to you” she says – further explaining that sometimes, even reading articles online can help to identify potential abuse in a relationship.

She says that sometimes in abusive households, it is not just the adults that are at risk. She says that often, although not always, if one partner is abusive to another, it is likely the children in the family can also be vulnerable.

“Children at risk is quite a terrifying prospect. What’s a reality for a lot of people is that it might be that the young children are at risk from partners in the home. So again, something to be mindful of is when one partner feels as though the other’s behaviour is unacceptable in terms of children, finding the guidance, finding the support, even just an anonymous phone call to a help line is a good first step” she says.

Shekhawat recommends organisations such as Refuge for anyone suffering from domestic abuse, as well as the Counselling Directory, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) and the Institute of Family Therapy as important places to get support, advice and even find a therapist.

Below is a list of resources that may be useful.

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