Planning for a New (Old) Family Dynamic
Last month, we published an article called “As Parents Return to Work, Teens May Not Handle It Well. Here’s Why.”
The title explains the content. It’s about how we can help families adjust to the end – fingers crossed – of the coronavirus pandemic. Specifically, it’s about the fact that over the past year, teens with parents who worked from home during the pandemic– who previously didn’t – adjusted to having their parents at home all day.
Some kids loved it. Some kids may not have loved it.
In either case, transitions can be tricky. No one had time to prepare for the transition from life as usual to life during a global pandemic. Life as usual meant we followed predictable routines around:
For parents who traveled a lot for work, as usual meant being away from home several days a week, several weeks a year, or more. Some would get on a flight in the morning, attend an afternoon meeting, then get on a plane and return home before midnight. Others in business would spend a week on an intensive assignment, helping open a new location, for instance. Public health scientists would go on assignment overseas for weeks and months at a time.
People who work in performing arts, such as live music, theater, or the event industry – think convention planners or even coordinators – may have been on the road more than they were at home. Their lives changed dramatically during the pandemic. Now, with vaccination rates increasing and case numbers dropping across the country, travel is bouncing back.
That includes recreational travel, mostly, for now. But we expect that by fall, business travel will be back, too.
That means another transition. Now we go back to normal.
Or rather, we move forward to the new normal.
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This Time, We Have Time
When the world slowed down and most business travel stopped last year, very few of us had any time to plan for it. And the plans we did make revolved around pressing issues, from how to survive with no work – a very serious problem for people in the entertainment and event industry – to how to set up a home office free from distraction or how to manage kids doing virtual school.
Few of us made proactive plans to handle how this would alter the family dynamic.
This time, though, we do have time. That’s because the typical, pre-pandemic volume of business travel is months away. But we know it’s coming. Businesspeople are planning trips. People in entertainment and events are booking gigs. Some are already booking flights.
We’re sure parents who travel for work are being proactive about the practical, brass tacks aspects of going back on the road. What we’re not sure about is whether they’re planning on how their family dynamic will change once travel resumes.
This article is for those parents.
A Mindful Transition
If you’re one of those parents, we want to help you make the shift as smooth as possible. We want it to be smooth for you and your teenage kids. We want you to be prepared for the unforeseen consequences of returning to work and returning to a situation where you may be away from home as often as you were in the before times. Whereas the articles we wrote a little over a year ago on transitioning to working from home or being home more than usual focused on things like keeping a regular schedule and setting up a workable home office or virtual school space, this article is different.
This one is about relationships, rather than about schedules or sharing the wi-fi. Relationships will change, and your family will find its next dynamic. This time, though, you can take proactive steps to ensure that dynamic is intentional, rather than accidental.
On The Road Again: How to Make It Work
1. Acting Out
Teens are tricky. Over the past year – whether they told you outright or not – they may have loved having you around all the time. They got used to having you there to answer questions. They grew accustomed to your help with everything from homework to yardwork to playing guitar. Maybe they groaned their way through family game night, but on a fundamental level, your presence may have soothed them and made things feel safe, easy, and secure. Now that you’re going out on the road again, be prepared for an emotional response manifesting as unwanted or disruptive behavior, a.k.a. acting out. To be clear on what we mean by acting out, what we mean is any behavior that’s impulsive, driven by emotion, and not thought out in a rational way.
If you’ve been home all year, it’s unrealistic to think your teen did not adapt, on an emotional level. Therefore, when you head back out, it’s equally unrealistic to think they won’t adapt again, on an emotional level – which could mean acting out. We want you to be prepared, be calm, be rational – and be ready. That means that if and when your teen acts out, try your best to respond from a place of compassion and empathy, and understanding.
2. You and/or Your Spouse Might Act Out, Too.
After all, you’re human. We said above teens are tricky, but the fact is, all humans can be tricky. Parents are not immune. Your presence at home all year affected your emotional state as well. It’s unrealistic to think it didn’t. Therefore, as with your teen, it’s also unrealistic to imagine that going back on the road won’t have emotional consequences that might cause you or your spouse to act out, as it were. And if you don’t act out – meaning you have the coping skills to prevent your emotions from manifesting in disruptive speech or behavior – then you may feel emotions you don’t think you should.
For instance, if you’re the spouse who stays home, you may resent the spouse who travels. Or if you’re the spouse who travels, you may resent the spouse who stays home. And to top it all off, you may resent your kids – yes, even though you had them – for being the reason you need to travel. Do those emotions seem irrational or illogical or off limits? Yes. Might they happen anyway? Yes. Again, we want you to be prepared, be calm, be understanding – and be ready. That means that if and when you or your spouse acts out, try your best to respond from a place of compassion, empathy, and understanding.
3. Stay Connected
Given that this transition will influence the emotional dynamics in your family, the best way to mitigate any negative consequences is to communicate. Think about the connections you made during the pandemic. You may have found routines that included informal conversations at consistent times, which you may have found comfort in. You may have had family meals for the first time in years. Or you may have had family movie nights, backyard campouts, and gone on evening walks or morning jogs.
Here’s something important to realize: all that doesn’t have to go away when you return to traveling. We now know that with video conferencing, movie watch parties, and all manner of creative applications of the internet and smartphones, most of those things can still happen. In altered forms, of course – but the point is you can stay connected.
You can eat dinner together, virtually. You can schedule those chats you learned to love. You can play video games, scrabble, or trade silly videos. Physical presence is important, but what that physical presence does is enhance emotional security. In your new normal, we encourage you to find ways to keep that emotional connection strong, despite the distance. Keep that emotional connection, and you’ll have a good chance at keeping your teenager feeling just as safe, secure, and easy as when you were home.
4. Plan Mini-Reunions
Before the pandemic, mom or dad – meaning you – going on a work trip was no big deal. It was old hat. Part of the routine. We speculate, but we assume you took trips when you left early in the morning without an official goodbye and returned from trips just in time to pick up your kid from [soccer, ballet, violin lesson, school] without any real acknowledgment that you were gone. Maybe you had a quick how was your trip/oh it was fine moment. But if your teenager now misses you down in their bones when you’re gone, we think returning from a trip is cause for a family celebration.
A mini-reunion of sorts.
It doesn’t have to be a huge deal, but we do think it should be more than what happens after you get home from a trip to the grocery store. Plan a family dinner. Plan a family event. Prioritize making a genuine connection with your teenager when you return. That might look different for every relationship within every family, which may mean effort and forethought – but the energy you put in will be well worth it – we promise.
5. Support the Traveler
The parent who travels needs to know their family understands why they travel, and that their family has their back, back home. If you’ve never had an intentional conversation with your kids about the reasons mom or dad travel, now is the time. However, an intellectual understanding of why a parent travels doesn’t change the fact that for a teen, it might hurt when the traveling parent goes back on the road. This situation requires an understanding of emotional nuance: it’s possible for your teen to be mad or hurt about your traveling and support you when you travel.
It’s possible to hold two contradictory emotions in your heart at the same time, just as it’s possible to hold two opposing intellectual concepts in your mind at the same time. Your teen needs to know this, and you need to help them work through how that feels. In addition to understanding nuance, this requires maturity and sophistication. We bet both you and your teen can do it. If you implement the advice we offer above – mainly staying connected – then the obstacles you face will be manageable, and your family can retain the cohesion you may have developed while the traveling parent was home.
Moving Forward: Embrace the New
Thankfully, you have time to prepare for this transition. You can start talking to your kids about it today. You can think forward. You can work out exactly how to stay connected to your teenage kids and keep the lines of communication open. Because that’s really the root of all the advice above: communication. Communication and empathy. Parents need to understand their teens might respond negatively to their return to traveling. Teens need to understand – and feel – their parents love them and are there for them despite the fact they need to leave the home for work. Parents and teens need to recognize all the feelings around these facts, get them out in the open, and work through them.
That’s why it’s a good thing that this time, there’s time. We advise you to put that time to good use and put in the effort now in order to help things go smoothly in three months. It will take thinking and planning. It may take some serious family talks. Whatever time and effort it takes, though, will be well worth it. You can keep your family dynamic healthy, strong, and vibrant, despite the distance and despite the time away. And there may be a hidden bonus, too. The family talks you have as you prepare for this transition may bring you closer together. Which, of course, would be a very good thing.
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Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.