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  • Jacqueline Smith

Positive psychology strategies that got my family through Coronavirus


When I moved to Uruguay in 2017, I wasn’t new to being an expat. I’d moved once before, in my early 20’s, from the US to the UK. I’d stopped thinking of myself as an expat (after 15 years the UK had become home), but when the opportunity came up to move to Uruguay for my husband’s job I still thought I roughly had an idea of what I was getting into.

How wrong I was! Anyone who moves abroad with children (mine were 2 years, and 3 months) knows that brings a whole other set of challenges with it. I missed my support network, my friends and in-laws and even my job. But after three years I had a good circle of friends, my Spanish was much improved, and I had set up my own business as a Positive Psychology Coach - working with clients in countries around the world, to help them apply positive psychology tools to achieve their goals. Drawing on my own experiences, I had even begun to specialise in working with other expats, helping people address the many challenges I have often faced myself. Life felt pretty good, I thought I had being an expat in the bag, and was starting to look forward to moving on to our next destination. And then coronavirus came to Uruguay and we went into lockdown.

Like parents everywhere, my first thoughts were all pretty negative. How were the children going to cope? How was I going to cope? Parenting can be challenging at the best of times, and the idea of home-schooling a 5 year old and a 3 year old in a foreign language whilst trying to keep my business running felt impossible. Here are five positive psychology strategies I used to help get us through:

1) Taking a strength based approach to parenting

It’s easy for us to focus on what we aren’t happy about in ourselves, or what we need to improve. Taking a strength based approach involves putting that to one side, and instead focusing on the things that we are good at and enjoy, and to try to build on those.

So for the children, instead of focusing on what they were doing wrong (fighting, not cleaning up their toys, not doing their homework) I instead focused on highlighting what they were doing well and really enjoying. Within just a few short weeks I saw how much more creative my daughter had become and how much she loved doing drawing, painting, sculpting – anything to do with art. So I made sure we incorporated as much creativity into our day as possible. My son meanwhile, who has always loved animals, was happy to do any learning activity where we ensured animals were the focus. Switching this focus of attention more towards their strengths and what they loved doing helped to restore good behaviour on many occasions and my sanity as well.

2) Having a growth mindset

The view we have of ourselves can profoundly affect the way we lead our lives. If we believe our qualities are fixed, we tend to evaluate every situation and reject as impossible any task that we don’t feel we are skilled enough to tackle. A growth mindset on the other hand is one that sees challenges and failure as opportunities to develop our qualities, which can all be improved with practice.

To cultivate this in my children, I made sure to focus on and praise the effort they made rather than the result, and to always look forward to the next attempt rather than dwelling on what had gone wrong.  

3) Starting a family gratitude journal

Keeping a gratitude diary is great habit to get into. Each day, before you go to bed, take the time to write down the one thing that day you are grateful for. It doesn’t need to be a big thing, but taking the time every day to appreciate one thing that went well has been shown to have a positive impact on your wellbeing. For my family, I adapted this to include everyone. Each evening at dinner, we would go around the table and say one thing that we enjoyed about the day. Despite being stuck inside, it really got my children focused on something positive before bedtime, and as they got used to the exercise we expanded it to also say one thing we were looking forward to the following day.

4) Reframing questions

Often our response to a problem can be a consequence of how we frame the question or issue we’re considering. So, instead of asking myself “How am I going to get through this” (with my mind likely to scream back at me that it’s going to be impossible), I reframed the question to “what do I need?” This more practical question leads naturally to more practical answers, that led to practical actions. I also used this technique with the children, to get them to think about what they could do, rather than becoming frustrated with what they couldn’t during lockdown.

5) Mindfulness and self-compassion

Mindfulness is really important in my life, and especially so the last few months. The insight that everything, including the current situation, is impermanent and will eventually come to an end has at times been the light at the end of the tunnel. But living mindfully also helps you to step back from your thoughts, to observe them, and then respond in a more considered way. I’ve taken care to really be present with the children as we’ve done activities, and make sure that I am enjoying the opportunity to spend more time with them.

Another equally important aspect is self-compassion. To be kind to myself when it’s been a hard day, and to know that I am doing my best but am not perfect!

I am lucky, in that the situation in Uruguay is fairly positive. Cases have fallen, and the children are planning to return to school. Although I won’t be sad when they do, I am really grateful for the time we’ve had together as a family over the last three months, and the changes that it has forced us to make in how we interact with each other. By forcing me to use the positive psychology tools I use with clients every day on my own family, we’ve all grown and bonded even more and now have even more tools to see us through the challenges that lie ahead for our next international move in 2021.

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