Don’t try to ‘catch up’ this summer

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A year ago, you’ll recall that our family lives were in chaos. We were managing the initial shock and fear of quarantine life. We were adjusting to working from home and acclimating ourselves to Zoom calls and daily life in front of screens. Stress ran high in households as families were, often for the first time, spending virtually all of their time together with no breaks.

Many of my clients found their family wholly unprepared for the resulting frustration, fear and isolation. Others had sleeplessness, anxiety and poor concentration for the first time.

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And our kids were pressing our buttons, skipping classes, taking video calls in their pajamas and lamenting all the things we couldn’t control. In the meantime, of course, we had loved ones getting sick or perhaps dying. We feared for our own health, and many of us were worried that our jobs were in jeopardy.

Looking back, many people have told me this was the most unpredictable, stressful time in their lives. This time last year, plans for a carefree, enjoyable, memory-filled summer was the last thing on most of our minds.

Fortunately, a lot has changed in a year.

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Of course, this pandemic is far from over, but with a far deeper understanding of the nature of transmission, millions of vaccines already administered and pandemic fatigue setting in for almost all of us, I think we need a collective break.

To my thinking, that break should begin now.

What does that look like for you? Maybe it means not pressing the kids to boost their grades at the end of the semester, not rushing to get in shape for summer, not packing up winter clothes and shopping for new swimsuits, and not working harder to free up time this summer.

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This summer, I encourage families to consider the least stressful approach you can identify for most any decision. You and your family have been idling on high for the more than a year now. That means we’ve been experiencing stress, of course, but it’s combined with a sense of exhaustion and boredom many of us have never before endured. My clients today describe a feeling of emptiness and vague pessimism, an ongoing sense of grief, along with a lack of certainty about the future.

It’s time to change this thinking before it becomes ingrained and habitual, for ourselves, and for our kids.

Although we cannot say it’s time for a post-pandemic life — we are not there yet — we can reset our thinking and activity to reflect a new, less stressful, more joyful normal, at least for now. Here are a few reset ideas.

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Skip the focus on accomplishment and perfection

I’m working with parents who are pressing their kids on homework and grades, for instance, as if this is an ordinary year. But this year has been far from ordinary. If you’re a parent, and your kids are like my clients, it has been a trying set of adjustments, from hybrid and online classes to in-person coursework, and sometimes back again.

As the months go by, it has become increasingly hard for them to focus and to muster the energy for large assignments or new, difficult material.

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Allow your kids to go for “good enough” for the next few weeks. If they’re attending classes, getting some work done every day and really trying, give them a break. In fact, give them a lot of breaks.

Remember how tough this school year has been on them and shift your metrics for success. If they have shown the resilience and competence to make it through this year, that’s a major win.

Give yourself a break as well.

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If you find yourself a bit behind in your work, or if the house is not perfectly clean, let’s allow that to be good enough as well. You’ll get there. Draw in a deep breath and remember this has been trying for you as well, and like your kids, in all likelihood you need a break.

If you are single, you have endured your own set of challenges. You’ve spent more time alone, perhaps, than you ever thought you might. Seeing friends and dating came to a startling halt, and loneliness and, in the case of some of my clients, even depression have been the result. You’ve had to navigate sometimes perilous financial situations.

This has been rough for all of us.

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Take the drive and listen to your favorite playlist. Sit safely with a friend and reconnect. Binge watch something fun. Treat yourself.

Make plans for the summer

A year ago, our plans for the summer, if we made any, were exceptionally limited. With all the progress that’s been made in containing Covid-19 since, we can lift some of our restrictions as well. Sit down and consider what you can safely do to enjoy this summer.

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Many of my clients are planning driving trips to national parks or to visit family and friends they haven’t seen in over a year. Plan a night out every week. Get creative about this. Here in the Chicago area where I live, people are planning to attend drive-in movies and even concerts. There is fun to be had, and there is no need to wait.

Ease into social interactions

A woman was in my office recently lamenting how quickly her friends are getting vaccinated and want to get together, sometimes in large groups. She doesn’t feel ready to shift from nearly total social isolation to sizable gatherings.

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Follow your instincts here. Get together and grab coffee or take a walk with a friend. See how that feels for you. And if you, or your children, need to ease into re-engaging socially, allow yourself or them the space to do so.

Lighten up a lot

A teenage boy was telling me everything he has been missing during the pandemic. His list was lengthy and somewhat predictable, but when I asked what he missed most, he did not skip a beat. “Laughing. I miss laughing.” This is not an unusual sentiment.

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We’ve been collectively carrying a sense of gravity in our mindsets for far too long. And this sense of seriousness has carried over into most areas of our lives. So, what used to be family in-jokes have sometimes become annoyances. We are too often short-tempered with one another. We need to lighten up and laugh more.

That’s reason to cue up the comedy. Make a conscious effort to listen and laugh. If you’re a parent, you may let your kids take the lead here.

Working with teenagers every day, I have the luxury of seeing some of the best improvised standup comedy right in my office. Make space for a lighter mood, in every way, in your home.

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Get your family talking about gratitude

If you already find yourself rolling your eyes at this suggestion, I get it. But I can tell you with authority that gratitude, at any level, is perhaps the most effective antidote to any unhealthy mindset.

Gratitude can be an internal exercise. I find it very helpful to have clients identify three elements of their lives they are grateful for, preferably first thing in the morning. Try it tomorrow.

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It will drive a significant shift in the way you approach the day, and you will find yourself seeking out other people and things for which you’re grateful. Gratitude feeds on itself and tends to grow.

On the whole, remember it is exceptionally difficult to maintain a mindset built on anxiety and crisis. None of us was built to manage in that space for a prolonged period. As we slide toward summer, a reset away from the stress of pandemic thinking is crucial for the well-being of yourself and your family.

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