Weather the Storms Together:
4 ways to Strengthen Families Through Times of Stress
Family life is not easy. Sure, there may be some “calm” days, but most families face plenty of “stormy” days (or weeks, or months, or years) too. Whether through illness, divorce, death, job loss, struggling children, or just plain “life,” storms roll in–sudden and uninvited–and present families with challenges that are overwhelming and may feel impossible to overcome.
My family is no stranger to storms. In fact, we were created out of a “storm” when my sister and brother-in-law died and we inherited our two nephews right as I gave birth to our 4th baby. The boys are now adopted and, almost five years later, we have safely weathered those storms. But last week, on a family vacation, we were faced with a literal storm that shook us all up and reminded me just how important it is to weather life’s storms together.
Weathering the Storm
Our first family trip on a houseboat at Lake Powell–on our second night there, we were finishing our BBQ rib dinner when the wind started gusting and, before we knew it, yanked out one of our anchors. Our older boys ran to the shore to rescue the anchor, I ran to the top deck to loosen the winches holding the anchored ropes to the boat, and my husband started up the engines in an effort to save us from breaking completely free or crashing on the shore.
Then the wind picked up even more and we lost a second anchor. When the anchor flew, the boat jerked and the thick ropes I’d been holding flew out of my hands—literally melting the skin on one of my fingers, and tangling in both the engines. My middle son ran to get me ice packs while I helped my husband as he dove under the boat in the wavy, dark water, again and again, with a knife in his teeth to cut the ropes free. My older sons rescued any of our supplies that were on the beach, and my frightened daughters obeyed as I explained they needed to get life jackets on, stay inside, and find a way to comfort one another.
Finally free from the ropes, we steered the houseboat away from shore, into the small open bay, trying to hold it steady and away from land. But, in the chaos, our two oldest sons ended up stranded on the shore, along with our ski boat. Now dark, we couldn’t even see them, as the wind and rain persisted. I gathered our family together, we said a prayer, and then we sent a distress call to a friend whose boat had been anchored nearby. But things were worse off than we knew—not only had most of the other boats in the area become loosened, but in the confusion of it all, a man on another houseboat (our friend’s friend) had slipped overboard and was nowhere to be found.
The search and rescue team and helicopters came, looking for the man, and eventually a couple of nearby ski boats rode out to us see if they could help; one of them, gratefully, rescued our sons, and the other actually turned out to be an old friend of mine! They were able to safely lead us to more open waters. For us, it ended up a 7-hour ordeal of navigating in the pitch black and eventually being “rescued” by the Park Service team (at 2 am), who helped us get anchored in for the night. Our friend’s friend, however, was not recovered.
4 Ways to Strengthen Families Through Times of Storm & Stress
Storms—literal or symbolic—are challenging. And everyone comes out affected in some way. Yet, when weathered together, these storms can strengthen family ties. Allow me to share four strategies that have helped my family weather our storms. I hope they will help your family too!
1) Turn toward each other. During our vacation storm, it would have been easy for us to fearfully retreat inside, isolate, ride it out, and assess the damage later. But, that’s not what families are for. We’re here to help each other, and as parents, it’s our responsibility to encourage our families to stick together. Plus, the damage from “riding out” storms alone can be far too great. Instead, keep family members engaged with one another in times of stress. Help children understand the situation, talking openly about what’s going on in words they can understand. Make time together as a family and spend it wisely. It’s not easy, I know. But the effort of keeping your family turned toward each other is well worth the pay off.
2) Be the Leader. As parents we have to lead our families. I know how hard it can be to feel overcome by grief, pain, or sadness, but I also know that the stakes are too high. Though we certainly need time to catch our own breath and process our own experiences, we also need to “suck it up” in order to be there for our kids. Be the example in helping your children heal; lead them through the storm. Make space for your own healing (in therapy, with a friend, or with your partner), then remind yourself that you are the parent and get out there and lead your family.
3) Give each family member a task. Help children understand what they can do and what they cannot do. Children want to help, but without direction, they may take on responsibilities they simply cannot, or should not, handle (like taking on the parent role). Tell your child what s/he can do to help the family through the storm. Giving my children tasks through our lake storm allowed each to feel empowered and it really helped my husband and me too. Just make sure that you are in the parent role and the children are in the child role. Reassure them that you are doing your part and help them understand and do their part too.
4) Talk. It can be challenging to keep conversation open when hard times hit; many of us want to keep things quiet or we may feel that it’s not “healthy” for our children to talk about what’s going on. But that’s simply not the case. During our lake storm, conversation was key–in working together, in helping each family member do their part, and in leading the family through. Conversation was also the key to reassuring my children, to helping them understand what was happening, and also helping me feel reassured that they were ok.
So, talk. I know from personal experience (having grown up in a family with many tragedies and deaths and very little open conversation), that it hurts our kids more to keep quiet than it does to talk openly. Discuss what’s going on. Let them ask questions. Answer as honestly as you can in language they can understand. Couples—talk to one another. Don’t shut each other out. One of the biggest keys to a strong family is open conversation. Make time to talk. You can take breaks as needed. But, keep the conversation going.
Our little family vacation turned into a life-altering event—not only for those on the boat with the “man overboard,” but for all of us. The morning after, our hearts were bursting with love for one another and gratitude that we were all safe–even our supplies had somehow been saved (The photo above right is of the morning after and our kayak that was miraculously beached on the shore nearby!).
And the life “storms” my family has weathered together have had the same effect: We’re stronger. We know we can make it through. We are humbled in a way that makes us teachable and more loving. And we are grateful. For, if there’s one lesson we have gained from our storms it’s that each moment together as a family is a gift, and to never take that gift for granted.
[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://www.drchristinahibbert.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/square-head-shot1.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Clinical Psychologist, Mom of 6, Postpartum Couples DVD Producer, Non-Profit Founder, and expert on Parenting, Women’s Emotions, Pregnancy & Postpartum, and Grief & Loss, Dr. Christina Hibbert loves songwriting, learning, and teaching what she learns. Learn and Grow with Dr. Hibbert and her community of really great people![/author_info] [/author]
Talk to Me: What storms has your family had to weather? What has gotten you through the “stormy times?” Have you ever felt “stuck” in the storm? Leave me a comment or a question so we can help each other weather the storms together:).
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