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E12: Protecting Families Through Covid 19

On the Show Today You’ll Learn

On this special episode, host and accredited family law specialist Benjamin Bryant talks to psychiatrist Dr Doug Andrews about the impact of the COVID19 pandemic on families, and how people can protect their children, their relationships and themselves over these difficult days, weeks and months.

Together Ben and Doug cover topics including:

    1. How to talk to children about the pandemic.
    2. How to talk to children about financial hardships resulting from the pandemic.
    3. How to recognise signs that the crisis is impacting children’s mental health.
    1. How to protect your relationship from the strains of social isolation.
    2. How to respond to heightened risk of domestic violence.
    1. Changing parenting arrangements during the pandemic.
    2. The best way for children of separated parents to come through the crisis well.

We extend our heartfelt thanks to Dr Doug Andrews for taking the time to help us provide the community with this resource.  We understand that this is a very difficult and stressful time for all health professionals and really appreciate Doug’s generous participation.

Links & Resources Mentioned in This Episode

These well-being programs are being made available for free through the COVID 19 pandemic:

Domestic violence and mental health hotlines are being given additional government funding and are there to provide help:

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Full Episode Transcript

Welcome to The Family Matters Show

Benjamin Bryant:  Welcome to a special episode of The Family Matters Show. Little has had a more sudden and jarring impact on families than the Covid 19 pandemic, with all of its fears, lockdowns and job losses. Today, our show is going to focus exclusively on helping families to get through these difficult times.

Benjamin Bryant: I’m your host, Benjamin Bryant, an accredited family law specialist with Bryant McKinnon Lawyers. And I’m joined today by Dr. Doug Andrews, a psychiatrist from Coffs Harbour’s Baringa Hospital, who is going to help us wade through the emotional issues faced by families at this time.

Benjamin Bryant: Doug, thank you so much for taking the time to help us and find some answers today. I’m sure this is a very busy time for you.

Dr Doug Andrews: Hello. Ben, it is. It’s a pleasure to be here. And I think it’s a busy time for everybody right now.

Benjamin Bryant: Certainly. And look, this is actually Doug’s second time on the show. So he’s a bit of an old hand at it. But it’s the first time we’ve recorded the show remotely. Complying with today’s social distancing rules, I’m currently recording from my office in Coffs Harbour and Doug is recording from his home at Emerald Beach. We are very lucky that the marvels of modern technology allow the show to go on.

How to talk to children about the Covid19 Pandemic

Benjamin Bryant: OK Doug, if we’re ready, we might delve into some of the issues affecting families at this time. And let’s start by talking about the impact on children. Most children will have some level of awareness about the dangers of Covid 19. Do you have any advice for parents about how to talk to children about the crisis?

Dr Doug Andrews: Yes. Look, Ben, I think we should probably set some ground rules before we get into that. Children are going to hear a lot of information. Some of it very alarming. And they see dramatic changes in their lives. So we can’t entirely shelter people from this. The kids aren’t going to school. They can’t visit friends. They’re not able to visit their grandparents. Their lives have changed really quite profoundly. And so I think that there’s some things that parents should really be considering.

Dr Doug Andrews: And for the sake of the children, but also for the sake of themselves, I think they have to turn off the barrage of news. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t be informed and set aside time to make sure that they know what’s going on in the world. But children don’t need to hear about this 25 times a day. The parents don’t need that and the children certainly don’t.

Dr Doug Andrews: I think that they shouldn’t be as parents talking about this to a great extent in front of the children. You know, I listened to my own friends, my colleagues, and the talk is often quite catastrophic. And children are listening. You know, they’re intelligent little beings and they hear all of this going on. And if you’re an anxious parent and many people are and at this time, many people are anxious, even if they don’t really have a lot of anxiety in normal times, then they’re likely to be speaking in a in a kind of a way which is going to be alarming the children and their children aren’t necessarily going to tell them about that.

Dr Doug Andrews:  How do we discuss this? Because kids have questions about this. I have grandchildren who are four years old and six years old, and they’re asking questions about it. I think we just have to answer in a simple and straightforward way. I think we need to be honest with the kids, but they don’t need a great deal of detail. They’re more interested in why they can’t do the things that they normally do. Just give them clear answers in a way appropriate to their age, something that they can understand.

Is the conversation different for different age groups?

Benjamin Bryant: And that’s something that I was going to ask Doug, was, is it different for children of different ages? Because obviously younger kids, they rely on their parents for most of their information or all of their needs, their dependent on their parents. But when you have teenagers, of course, they’re on TikTok and social media and all sorts of things. Getting information from a variety of sources. So it really depends on the children’s ages as to what detail, I guess, you go into or how you approach it.

Dr Doug Andrews: Yes, of course, that’s true. And they will have very different concerns. Young children are hearing this stuff and, they’re worried, will they get sick? Will they die? Will their parents die? They wonder why they can’t go to school, why they can’t see their friends, why they can’t visit grandma, that kind of thing. Older kids, it’s really disrupting their lives. And they just want to get back to what is the normal and healthy focus in their lives. Teenagers are focused socially. They’re interested in their friends. They’re interested in the things that are happening in the community. And in a very stark way, we’ve taken that away from them by social distancing, by closing down the schools, by closing down the social clubs, by closing down the coffee shops. So they have a very different set of concerns. And yet they will also be worried about the illness associated and the risks to themselves. And I think in the current environment where there is so much being said and there’s so many dire consequences in some countries that haven’t yet reached Australia but might, kids need to understand that they’re really not highly at risk from this. Even if they get this illness, they’re likely to do very well. Their parents are an age group where they’re likely to do very well as well. So, you know, they have to see this, and I think we all need to see this as a catastrophe for our society. It’s causing great financial strain. It’s going to cost the lives of many people. But for most people, especially kids and their younger parents, it’s not going to have that kind of an impact directly on them. It might affect older relatives and older friends.

Dr Doug Andrews: The other thing I guess that came to my mind is that, maybe kids need to understand why we’re going through all of this pain in terms of the social distancing and the shut downs. And the real reason behind this is we’re trying to prevent the hospitals from becoming overwhelmed, so that we can give the best health care possible to everybody in our society. And kids are doing their part by staying home, by not being in school, by not seeing their friends. They’re really contributing greatly. And they need to understand there’s a purpose behind this. It’s not just about punishment, which it probably feels like for a lot of them.

Should we talk to kids about financial worries?

Benjamin Bryant: And Doug, for a lot of families what parents are trying to do is to protect children from, say, adult issues or catastrophes or crises or something and let children be children. But in these circumstances and these unprecedented times, it’s unavoidable. For example, extreme financial hard hardship. There’s a lot of industries, a lot of business closures. Are we talking to our kids about the financial worries or are they still best to be kept from them?

Dr Doug Andrews:  Look Ben, you brought up earlier the idea of what is age appropriate. And for younger children, I don’t think that financial issues are really and should not really be their concern. That’s something that the parents should look after, without really bringing them into the discussion. Again, if they ask specific questions, I think that they should be given very simple answers. But this isn’t a worry that they need to have. There’s enough good reasons why, you know, they can’t go on holidays or we’re not going to buy them a new bike this week. And we can frame it in terms of the social distancing, the isolation, the shops being closed and all of those things. I would be quite protective of kids around issues that they don’t need to be concerned about.

Dr Doug Andrews: I think you might give a slightly more sophisticated answer to teenagers, but typically the adults need to manage the finances. These are adult concerns. It becomes starker if you can’t pay the rent. If you can’t afford to buy food or you’re running a business which has collapsed and it looks like you’re not going to be able to reopen it. Legitimate questions about, why are their parents at home when their parents previously went out to work every day? What are they doing about the shop, the business, the professional rooms or whatever it is? I think you can answer those questions in ways appropriate to the kids. But as much as possible, I think we want to protect the kids from this stuff.

What are the possible mental health issues for kids of the pandemic?

Benjamin Bryant: And of course, in protecting the children and everyone really, and we’re all being kept at home and relatively restricted. This is going to lead to a certain amount of cabin fever. If you haven’t felt it already. But it is possible that there may be longer-term mental health issues for kids, if we have to essentially be shut down for some time. Yeah?

Dr Doug Andrews: Yes. Look, I think we’re all suffering from cabin fever already. So, look, I’m going to take that as almost two questions. And I know that it was phrased more or less as one.

Dr Doug Andrews: But I think that there’s a lot that we can do in the space that we have. And children, adults both need to have structure and activity. They need to be eating well and have physical exercise. The kids are home from school or preschool. And the schools are contributing. They are coming up with homework plans and those sorts of things. Parents don’t need to be teachers, but they need to supervise this. They need to have ideally set times where they can sit the kids down and say, now is your school work time. Later on, we’re going to jump on the trampoline or we’ll go for a walk and we’ll run on the beach for 20 minutes, keeping all the right distance from everybody else who’s running on the beach. But there’s a lot that you can do to keep the kids physically and mentally healthy in this space.

Dr Doug Andrews: They are needing social contact. They can link up with their friends. They can link up with their grandparents. They can link up with their school and using technology like Zoom and things like that. And that is a band-aid. But it’s an effective way of trying to keep them connected with their usual life. So, you know, we want to do that. I think we want to be careful, in this environment. We want to be careful that the kids aren’t getting too much screen time. You mentioned, the adolescents on social media. I think it’s pretty clear that social media makes people unhappy if we spend too much time on it. And there’s a lot of risk in that. So, parents are going to have to step up and take a lot of responsibility for what’s happening in the home.

Dr Doug Andrews: But kids are going to be exposed and their lives have changed. So we’re looking at the possibility that they will develop anxiety and it may not go away when this goes away. They may get mood problems. So, if your kids are fretting about things or they’re crying, they’re withdrawing, they lose motivation, they don’t want to be active anymore or they’re throwing temper tantrums. And, you know, I always think of toddlers and young children. But, you know, older people can throw temper tantrums, too. And all of those should be warning signs that something is amiss with the kids.

Dr Doug Andrews: Kids are very resilient and they will survive. But some kids will develop mental health problems and may need to have professional support and help. And there’s been a tremendous shift in the way mental health is being delivered in this country. So that, like me, a lot of health professionals are working remotely. Many psychologists, probably school counsellors, are willing to see people by video links. And the government has stepped up. They are supporting that. So, we’ve got provision for that. And, you don’t want to wait too long and you don’t want to expect that all of these things will resolve when we finally have a vaccine or whatever it is that says we can all go back to our usual lives.

What are mental health signs for people to look out for?

Benjamin Bryant: You just touched on it then, Doug, but children will adapt to change differently. As with adults, of course, as well. People handle change differently. And you’ve mentioned perhaps some withdrawal or tantrum throwing. What are some other signs that parents could look for that it’s having an adverse impact on their mental health?

Dr Doug Andrews: I think you would be expecting that if kids aren’t doing well, their behaviour is going to change. That might be expressed in irritability or tantrums, but it might also be expressed in not wanting to do the things that they normally do, not taking an interest in things that they normally would want to engage in. For example, you know, an older child might give up playing their musical instrument or they might give up drawing. They don’t want to contact their friends. They don’t want to talk to people They’re isolating themselves in their room and they don’t want to come out. You’re just looking at changes in the way these kids usually relate in their usual behaviour. As I say that, I realise that their behaviour is being forced to be changed. So, parents are going to have to be checking in and watching the kids. And the parents are stressed and the parents are going to have anxiety problems and mood problems, some of them. And they need to also be able to be checking in and watching the others in the household and making sure that everybody is OK. It’s a challenging time.

Benjamin Bryant: And like you said before, Doug, there’s still mental health services available for children and adults out there as well. It may look a little bit different now, perhaps with tele-health and things like that, but it’s still available.

Dr Doug Andrews: And there are some very interesting things happening. This Way Up is our anxiety disorders research unit and they do provide clinical care in Sydney. And they typically have been selling their courses and they’ve put them all online for free. So anybody can access them. Anybody can use them. There are other resources around the world. Yale University runs a course in well—being, which they’ve put online for free. There’s many, many, many others that people can access and get support from and get help.

Benjamin Bryant: Excellent. Well, we might put a link for This Way is Up onto this podcast for our listeners there.

How can couples protect their relationships through the stress of the pandemic?

Benjamin Bryant: And Doug, if I can now move to adult relationships. Couples are finding themselves trapped in the household day with each other for who knows how long. Plus, of course, many are experiencing real financial hardship and other pressures. This would put a strain on even the best relationship. What can people do to protect their relationships at this time?

Dr Doug Andrews: I agree entirely. It’s going to be a very tough time in many relationships. And, even healthy relationships, but those that are already under strain it might lead to breaks it might lead to behaviours that are unacceptable in relationships. The first and most important rule is about communication. People have to talk to each other. They have to do it often and they have to do it respectfully.

Dr Doug Andrews: The golden rule here is that you talk about how you feel and what your needs are and as much as possible, stay away from that impulse to criticise the other person. For some couples this isn’t something that they do in a very structured way. And we’re in a pressure cooker. And for some of them, it might be helpful to set aside some time when the kids aren’t going to be around, where the kids are in bed or they’re playing in the backyard, just so that they can touch base with each other and see how they’re going.

Dr Doug Andrews: This is something to help them to share the load and sharing the load in a physical sense as well, because people are seeing a change in their roles.

Dr Doug Andrews: People who had been going to work for 40, 50 hours a week are now sitting at home. People who had a split of labour in the home may have to re-evaluate. And I think everybody has to look at what does need to be done. We’re not used to looking after our school aged kids all day long. And that’s not something that you can do on the side. That’s a big job. So parents, couples, partners are going to have to talk to each other about how can they support each other, how can they split this work, how can they make sure that it gets done? And I think this is a time when people are going to have to try to be fair and maybe err on the side of being generous. You know, if you’re not sure whether you’re doing too much or not, maybe doing a little bit more than is expected of you is better than doing less and will create a better, more harmonious household and less stress for everybody.

Dr Doug Andrews: Parents need time out. They need time out from each other, especially if relationships are strained. So it’s OK to go for a run on the beach. It’s okay to get on your bicycle and go. And if you’re irritable or you’re getting angry, then maybe that’s a good time to have some time out. But talk to your partner about it. Because silence is misinterpreted. Silence is seen as sullenness or anger or you don’t love me anymore. And you have to again go back to that communication, talk about how you’re feeling. And if you’re walking out for a half an hour, then say so and say, “Look, I’m just not coping very well right now. I need to get out of the house. I’ll be back in half an hour.” And then when you’re back, you need to talk about it. And why that happened.

Dr Doug Andrews: You need to find time for intimacy. And when you’re home all day and people are irritable and stressed, then that might have to be something that they think about carefully and plan for. And there’s going to be moments where people get angry or upset and overreact. And if you have and you recognise it, then apologise and try to move on from that, because it’s going to happen and it’s going to happen in good relationships.

What is your advice for those in fear of domestic violence?

Benjamin Bryant: That’s some great tips there, Doug. I always say to clients on an everyday basis, the demise of any relationship, whether it be romantic or otherwise, will be the absence of communication. And I think your message is so important. But of course, there’s some people that cannot communicate in their relationships. And as we know, the country is now bracing itself for a lift in domestic violence incidents as a result of the Covid 19 isolation measures. And the government’s just announced $150 million into domestic violence services. People in domestic violence situations must be feeling even more trapped than what they were. What advice do you have for a parent who fears domestic violence directed at themselves or their children?

Dr Doug Andrews: This is very difficult. And, all credit to the government for recognising this and supporting it early. I read just today that they’ve already seen a 25 percent jump in the UK and the UK is ahead of us on the Covid curve. So, we’re moving in that direction. So I think that’s very, very real concern. People in dysfunctional relationships will have less time away from each other. A lot of times when people are in difficult relationships, they talk about the relief they have when their partner goes to work and they’ve got eight hours away from them or whatever it is and time to be by themselves. We’re also going to see all the financial problems that you alluded to earlier, which is going to put extra strain on relationships. Social distancing means that people who are in relationships with a controlling partner will find it more difficult to connect with family, friends and other people who might be able to support them.

Dr Doug Andrews: And Ben, I think we just default back to the usual thing. Domestic violence is unacceptable in any circumstances. If you’re subject to it, then you have to know how to maintain your boundaries. If that requires phoning the police, then that’s what you must do. If that leads to an arrest or an AVO, then that’s a consequence. People have to take consequences for their actions. If your partner can no longer live in the home and has to find their own way in the world for a while, then children deserve to be safe and and adults deserve to be safe.

Dr Doug Andrews: So I think that these services will ramp up. Hopefully there will be people that you can talk to and get support from. The refuges will still exist and people have to use those things. The more challenging thing is when you’re in that coercive, controlling relationship. That doesn’t necessarily spill over into punches and it can be very insidious and very difficult to know. Where do I draw the line? This person has always been controlling and difficult and now…well, I’m not really supposed to be leaving the house. And, he or she’s telling me I shouldn’t be leaving the house. The car keys have been taken away. And that’s going to be really challenging. And that’s where some of these services are going to be so important, where there’s numbers to call and people that you can talk to. As long as you can find a moment away from that person. This is going to be a tough time.

Benjamin Bryant: It certainly is Doug. Just like with the mental health services, I think it’s important for our listeners to know that the domestic violence services are still available. It might be different now. How we can access the services might be different, but we still have the hotlines. We still have 1 800 RESPECT. We have Victim Services NSW, Women’s Resource Centres, New South Wales police and the like. Safety is the priority. And like you said, family violence is inexcusable no matter when it occurs. And so it’s important for people to know that those services are still out there and are not closed.

Dr Doug Andrews: Yeah, exactly.

Divorced and separated families coping with the pandemic

Benjamin Bryant: And finally, Doug, we’re just going to talk a little bit about the lives and relationships of divorced or separated families. And I guess I come into that somewhat because I’m the lawyer voice on the show, of course.

Benjamin Bryant: For the last two weeks, myself and my partner, this office has been fielding a lot of calls from families, who have either been through the court process before or were lucky enough to get consent orders at the time, which set out who a child is to live with and who the child is to spend time with and what those parenting arrangements are. And of course, now we have this situation where the government, the different state governments, are giving directives to people as to what they can do and what they can’t do. And sometimes there’s inconsistencies between what the government says that people can currently do and, of course, what court orders compel them to do. And some people have made the decision to stop children going to their ex-partner. because of Covid 19 concerns. And some people have even stopped their own contact. I have a client who’s on the front line, as it were, and works as a paramedic. And they essentially, quite early on in the piece, pulled out of their spend time with arrangements. So there’s even people relinquishing time.

Benjamin Bryant: And of course, the Court is obviously not going to just say, “Oh, forget about those, just ignore those for the time being. Just pretend like they’re not there.” Obviously, children need a relationship with both of their parents. Obviously, children need stability and consistency at this time and a bit of routine. But also the Court, of course, doesn’t want to see children be in a situation that is not safe. So it really is, whether they have a reasonable excuse or whether the children are at an unacceptable risk of harm is on a case by case basis.

Benjamin Bryant: If the listeners out there are wanting me to give a definitive answer or response as to what they should do, they’re going to be disappointed. It’s very difficult as everything in family law, it’s discretionary. Will Alstergen,  he’s the chief justice of the Family Law Courts in Australia, and he was speaking on ABC Radio this morning with Fran Kelly. And essentially his message was for parents just to communicate with each other and to offer flexibility. Which is essentially the same things that you were just speaking of then, effective communication, often and respectful. But that is really difficult for people when they’re separated and might be acrimonious and they can’t communicate. And there’s absolutely no trust. And I am sure there are people out there who are using the Covid 19 measures as a reason to withhold contact for a whole variety of reasons. But I think it’s fair to say there’s a lot of concerned parents out there and when one parent is saying, “I have concerns for our children with the travel arrangements or because I don’t know what’s happening in your household.” The other parent simply hears, I don’t value your relationship with the children.

Benjamin Bryant: And we don’t know how long it’s going to go on for either Doug. It depends, what news station you listen to: could be three months, six months. Who actually knows? And I had this really unique experience today. I was doing a family dispute resolution conference. And as I said, for the last couple of weeks, I’ve been talking to parents who already have orders in place. But this morning I was helping parents who were trying to navigate what the future’s going to look like so they could reach an agreement and get orders in place. And we’re used to trying to look into the crystal ball about what’s going to happen when a child reaches school age or what happens when a parent moves or when a child turns a particular age. But trying to define what the Covid 19 pandemic is and when it’s going to stop and what should be the arrangements and the travel and where the contact can occur and whether there’s restrictions or injunctions on who people can interact with. It’s really quite difficult.

Benjamin Bryant: But I think it’s fair to say that the message I would give to the parents is the court would never expect parents to do something which would cause their child danger Some people might be have orders that are simply frustrated. For example, it might involve airplane travel. And that’s just not available anymore. Or it might be at a contact centre and the contact centres are shut. In those circumstances essentially the orders are frustrated. But it’s harder when there’s just concerns of parents, when perhaps, the borders are still open or there might be an exempt person. But that parent really does have concerns. Not necessarily perhaps for the child, but not knowing what’s happening in the other parent’s home, because, of course, when they come back, you might have other children who are at higher risk or you might live with your parents or something like that.

How can parents ensure their kids come through the pandemic well?

Benjamin Bryant: And really Doug, the Family Court is always trying to do what’s in the best interests of children and for separated couples trying to jointly manage their children through these difficult times. What advice do you have to ensure that kids come through the crisis well?

Dr Doug Andrews:  I guess the solution is going to be different for every couple. And you mentioned the paramedic who has stepped back and I know that our medical colleagues in Europe, many of them aren’t going home and they’re not going home at all. They’ve found alternative accommodation. And they’ve done that altruistically, out of concern for the well-being of their family. Because they don’t want to bring this thing home. And they’re working 14 or 15 or 18 hours a day anyway.

Dr Doug Andrews: So the problem is going to manifest differently in every home. And the solution is going to look different as well. Children are resilient and they will come through this if their home environment is adequate. And I use that word advisedly. It doesn’t have to be perfect. No home is. It just needs to be good enough. They need to see, respect between their parents. They have to have a safe environment. They need their basic needs met and they need to be treated with love. Most kids will come through this. This pandemic is a crisis unlike I’ve ever seen in my life and in my medical career. I’ve never experienced anything like it. I don’t think any of us have. And I noticed politicians are starting to use the war metaphor about it, which I don’t like. And Thomas Keneally wrote an article on the weekend and he said. it’s not like war, and he remembers World War Two, because we can still hug each other.

Dr Doug Andrews: People are social animals and they need their social environment to be healthy. And we’ve lost a lot of our usual social ways of interacting during this time. So, separated couples, what can they do? I think this is an extraordinary time and they have to step up. Now is the time to really act like an adult. Every action they take should be determined by what’s best for their children. As parents sharing the care of a child, they need to treat each other with respect. The well-being of their children will be, to a considerable extent, determined by the well-being of their ex-partner. Whether they like that partner or whether they don’t. This is a time to do more than you might be expected to do. And I think people are going to have to try harder than they might have tried in the past and try to put aside the petty squabbles. Kids do need access to both of their parents. Not every separated couple has a bad parent and a good parent. Many have two good parents and they need to try to find ways of making that work.

Goodbye and thank you!

Benjamin Bryant: Wow, what a great message. And thank you so much, Doug, for taking the time to be on today’s show and helping the community get through these times.

Dr Doug Andrews: A pleasure.

Benjamin Bryant: And to all of our listeners. Thank you for listening. And we hope you’re staying safe and well and looking out for each other.

Benjamin Bryant:  Usually we announce our plans for next month’s show at this point. But like everything else at this time, our podcast is staying fluid. The topic of our show in May will likely be dictated again by the Covid 19 crisis. We will keep you posted on Facebook on the topic for upcoming podcasts as they are finalised.

Benjamin Bryant: Before we go, I want to mention that we have links to a number of resources related to Covid 19, plus a full transcript of today’s show on our website: bryantmckinnon.com.au. Goodbye for now. Thank you for listening and stay safe.

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