Taking the kids: family dynamics, safety concerns upend pandemic gatherings

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By Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Content Agency

Like a lot of other kids, the four Beatty kids were excited about getting together with their cousins for a theme park vacation complete with a hotel stay this summer. Then their dad pulled the plug.

“It wasn’t the right time,” said Dr. Norman Beatty, whose kids range in age from five to 13. “The family was disappointed, but they understood.”

Perhaps better than most kids as Dr. Beatty is on the front lines daily in the fight against COVID-19 as an infectious disease expert treating COVID patients in Florida and as a professor at the University of Florida medical school.

. (Dreamstime/TNS)
Family social distancing and enjoying time together, safely. (Dreamstime/TNS)

He acknowledges, when it comes to big multi-generational families like his, not everyone is on the same page about what they should do to protect themselves and others, wearing masks, social distancing and washing hands frequently.

“We have had some intense conversations,” Dr. Beatty said. “Some are less inclined to want to adhere to the guidelines. At times it is hard not to bend the rules. Everyone is so exhausted by these guidelines. It’s tough.”

That makes the decision whether to get together with family, even just the grandparents, even harder. Could anyone in your family unwittingly expose someone at risk? Could other family members who haven’t practiced social distancing expose you? Can the kids play with their cousins? Hug their grandparents? Fly to visit a divorced parent?

“It is a constant risk assessment over and over,” says Dr. Vaile Wright, a spokesman and senior director of health care innovation for the American Psychological Association. She suggests many of us are suffering from Decision Fatigue. “There are so many decisions that have to be made that have real consequences,” she said. “It is about finding the balance that you are comfortable with and asking yourself what is in the best interest of your family.”

It also means explaining to the kids honestly and in an age-appropriate way why you have made the decisions you have, Dr. Wright adds.

Jackson WY during CovidSummer2020
Jackson WY during CovidSummer2020

“The overwhelming fact is we live in a country where virus is running like wildfire, more out of control than most other places. It is a very scary time,” says Dr. Arthur Lavin, an Ohio pediatrician and a spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics on psychosocial aspects of child and family health.

On our 2,800-mile road trip across the West earlier this summer, we met far fewer multi-generational groups than would be typical in the summer. And those we did meet were determinedly social distancing from other vacationers, staying in campers, RVs and cabins, spending their time outdoors, picnicking for lunches and barbecuing for dinner but unwilling to give up on precious time together. “We do this same trip every year,” one Nevada mom traveling with her extended family explained.

But if your family can’t agree on following recommended health protocols, experts suggest, this may not be the time to get together. Consider how fraught holiday gatherings get with inevitable arguments about parenting styles, politics and religion. Now the disagreements can literally have life-and-death consequences.

Consider a Zoom call first before planning to get together, suggests, Dr. Gabrielle Shapiro, a New York psychiatrist, medical school professor and chairman of the American Psychiatric Association Council on Children, Adolescents and their Families.

The Young family from North Carolina smiling wide
The Young family from North Carolina smiling wide in Jackson WY

Talk about what you have missed seeing each other, what you are looking forward to when you get together. “Sometimes when we see each other, there are these conflicts, but talk about how you don’t want to do this right now,” she said. “And if your family members refuse to wear masks and you are worried about safety, keep it to video calls.”

With divorced families, she adds, parents should talk about their expectations for the kids’ safety and to be as consistent as possible. “Remember, after this trauma, the kids have changed, the parents have changed … you want to keep the anxiety down.”

If one parent believes it is safe to fly and the other doesn’t want the kids on a plane, perhaps a solution would be for the parent to fly to visit rather than the children, especially because everyone is so stressed, it’s important to be politic. Rather than saying “you are really selfish for not wearing a mask,” suggests Dr. Vaile, You might say, “I feel uncomfortable when you don’t wear a mask, and I think we can’t see each other until this is over.

“It is about trying to be creative with what resources we have now – and you have to accept this is the reality. We don’t like it, but we have to work with it. This is temporary,” said Dr. Vaile. “Find the balance you are comfortable with. Don’t judge yourself. None of this is easy. It is about asking yourself – what is in the best interest of my family?”

And reminding yourself—and the kids — that this won’t last forever.

“I’m optimistic that things will turn around,” said Dr. Beatty. “It just may take a while.”

© 2020 EILEEN OGINTZ

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