Wednesday, February 28

I worry that ours is not a happy house. What can I do to lift the mood? | Familia

I’m married with two children, aged seven and 12. Maybe it’s the effects of the pandemic…but both my husband and I feel exhausted and beaten down by life (which sounds very whiny, since we are healthy and ok financially). We have no family close by, though we do have supportive friends.

My older child is coping with low mood and depression (and speaking to a counsellor, which is helping), has angry meltdowns and worries about climate change and the war in Ukraine. I share their concerns but try to encourage them not to think about it before bed.

I worry whether ours is a happy house. I feel we are in a negative pattern of feeling frustrated by the kids’ behaviour, their fussy eating patterns, and just generally. it feels like at weekends the kids whine, we nag, and there isn’t much joy or fun in our lives. My husband is involved, present, kind and caring, but serious and quiet – so he does not bring a zest for life or a fun side with the kids. This is usually my role, but even if we have those moments, they feel outweighed by the day-to-day bickering and tedium of nagging them to do things.

I feel guilty that I am not an example of optimism. can we change the mood in our house?

A word I have returned to repeatedly recently is anhedonia – the inability to take pleasure in things, a lack of joy where joy should be. I think the trauma of the past two years, living with the unknown and the unknowable, being separated from family and friends who provide well-needed perspective, distraction and connection, shouldn’t be underestimated – even before we mix in climate change and war . It’s easy to “go flat” in situations like this as a protective mechanism: when we numb one emotion, we numb them all.

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You asked how you can change the mood in the house and I think it has to start with you. What makes you happy? What do you need? Moods are infectious, and it sounds like you are the fulcrum in the house, so start attending to your own needs. There’s a real tendency for mothers to put others first and, in so doing, find they have less in the way of reserves. But if you don’t tend to yourself, you can’t care for others. If you feel really long-term down, a trip to the GP may be an idea.

Your husband doesn’t have to be about having fun with a capital F: being present with them, engaged, being led by their needs (what are they?), playing quiet games… these are all important. I note you describe yourself as the “adult” of the family, but you’re not, are you?

I consulted child and adolescent psychotherapist Louise O’Dwyer. We both wondered what your own childhood was like – this is important because it can inform your expectations. Maybe you feel guilty that your children aren’t having a whiz-bang-pop childhood, but a lot of what you describe is very ordinary, and life is about the ordinary.

With regard to the nagging: pick your battles. It really doesn’t matter if certain jobs don’t get done; work out what’s important and let go of what isn’t. This takes practice. Do an age-appropriate rota for reasonable jobs the children can do to help. Children like knowing what’s expected of them, and everyone thrives on achievement. O’Dwyer also recommended sitting and talking, as a family. I can’t second this enough: weekly talks over lunch, or another time when you are calm; maybe doing an activity. Find out how everyone is, what excites and ails them, how their week went, what worked, what didn’t. Be curious.

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O’Dwyer said that if your child often asks big questions at bedtime, that’s something to take note of. “Is that the only time you have to chat?” she asks. If so, it could be their way of trying to carve out some time with you, so maybe think about when else you could make time for them. You could, she suggests, “acknowledge that that’s a really big question and one we might need to think about, and explore why that might be on their mind right now”.

There are some good resources online about how to talk to your children about war, and finding positives in the climate crisis, that you might want to read. Remember to acknowledge your children’s feelings, whatever they are. That really is the most important thing. Children often hand us difficult information for us to digest and give back to them in a more palatable way.

Every week Annalisa Barbieri addresses a family-related problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa on a family matter, please send your problem to [email protected]. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions.

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Conversations With Annalisa Barbieri, series 2, is available here.

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