Joanna Harrison, a visiting clinician (couple therapist) at Tavistock Relationships, the charity providing couple therapy, training and research, offers relationship advice for couples coping with lockdown homeschooling.
‘The challenges of home-based work and schooling are ongoing, with children not returning to school until March at the earliest. The strongest bonds in relationships can be tested by this, and for many, it feels like this is the hardest bit of lockdown yet.
‘During our Living with Lockdown short-term couple therapy programme, we’ve seen recurrent themes of homeschooling difficulties between parents. So we’ve put together some advice based on what we’ve learned about the best ways to deal with homeschooling as a couple.’
- Acknowledge each other’s roles. Resentment around the different roles parents is having to take on, for example, one having to do all the homeschooling and domestic side of things, while the other focusing on their job, is common. But what seems to help couples here, is being able to find a way to acknowledge the importance of and show respect for each other’s roles.
- Listen to each other. Many couples experience difficulties communicating with each other about worries over a child who is struggling. Here, it’s not about finding out who has the ‘right’ answer for what to do to help a child, but more about helping each parent feel heard by the other. Taking turns to express yourselves without interruption, and acknowledge that you both helped.
- Accept different expectations about what is possible academically. This is often a pre-existing issue in the relationship, but the intensity of the home school environment can bring it to the top of the agenda. It helps couples to see that perhaps this issue isn’t one to resolve now, but is a situation that just needs managing in the short term. It takes the heat out of things when parents can see their different styles can actually be helpful, as they can offer their children an interesting range of ways to do things. And rather than interfere with each other and argue in front of the children about which way is best, parents should try to find something to appreciate about each other’s approach.
- Carve out couple space. Many couples find it hard to have any time where they feel they can be identified as a couple, rather than as parents and domestic providers. But there are small ways that couples can connect with the couple side of them. For example, making cups of tea for each other always goes down well! One of the things that happen to couples under extreme parenting stress, is a need to feel parented themselves. This is so hard to offer to each other when you are both are feeling maxed out. Watching the same TV show and sharing in something, rather than doing things separately, is often an important way of connecting.
- Take time out. Equally, couples need to find space away from each other and the family to recharge themselves. Whether it’s simply going for a walk or run alone, or agreeing that you don’t see each other for a few hours. It feels odd for couples to have to create new boundaries with each other within their own home, but sometimes this can be helpful.
- Find ways to take the heat out. Homeschooling brings up some very raw feelings for parents to manage. Feelings of incompetence, frustration, and worry about what it means for the children. As well as worries about not being able to do one’s own job properly because of needing to help the children, and feelings of desperation about the endless domestic tasks. And all this in the context of the highly worrying external pandemic situation, with all its implications. Being aware of when things feel too much is important. One way of dealing with a pressure cooker is to take it off the heat. Try to think together about ways to take the heat out of the situation before it becomes too much. This may mean reducing the amount of homeschooling, or keeping food as simple as possible, or letting the house get messier than usual.
- Turn to the relationship for support. When parents are under pressure like this, one of the things they can do is turn to the relationship itself for support, and think about how to share out the different responsibilities. When there are such raw feelings around, the relationship may be the place where you can let off steam about the challenges of the day. It may be really important for your partner to be able to hear this. In our ‘Living with Lockdown’ short term couple therapy programme, many couples spoke of how when they’d had a difficult day homeschooling, they didn’t want criticism or judgement, or even problem solving from their partner. They just wanted acknowledgement as to how tough it felt. When a couple can make space between them to tend to the challenges they face, it can shield the children from being on the end of the feelings.
- Repairing is important. This space between a couple doesn’t necessarily look tidy. These might be difficult conversations where one or both people are full of feelings. There might be arguments that need repairing afterwards. Nothing looks tidy in these homeschooling days. Messy homes, messy conversations. The capacity to repair and make up is important, and it requires a couple to make space to do so. Another good excuse for a cup of tea! This isn’t easy, and couples need to bear in mind that conflict in front of their children is harmful to their children.
For more information about the relationship support available at Tavistock Relationships, including the organisation’s Living with Lockdown four-session programme, visit their website or call 0207 380 196.
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