Each December, my social media feed fills with negative sentiments about the year we’re about to leave behind. I remember seeing numerous posts at the end of 2019, with everyone hoping that the coming year would be better.
Recently, I’ve been thinking that as 2020 comes to a close, there will certainly be no shortage of “good riddance” sentiments. I was talking about this with a friend, who said, “Everyone seems to be aware of post-traumatic stress, but no one ever seems to talk about post-traumatic growth.”
That got me thinking. As we recognize that 2020 has been extremely difficult, what is some of the good that resulted from the bad?
Natalie Johnson, clinical director and therapist at Rocky Mountain Counseling Collective, says that since the onset of the pandemic, many people have felt like their world was flipped upside down. “I have observed a significant increase in the number of individuals experiencing trauma in a variety of ways,” says Johnson. “The simplest definition of trauma is anything that causes extreme distress. And this year, there seems to be an endless surplus of disruptive situations contributing to very high levels of distress on a widespread level.”
But Johnson says it doesn’t have to stop there. “Although it’s difficult not to get stuck in the challenging emotions resulting from trauma, the encouraging news is that we can experience positive post-traumatic change and growth.”
Post-traumatic growth is generally defined as experiencing positive change as a result of negative or challenging experiences/adversity. “While trauma resulting from the pandemic might be more subtle than something like experiencing a war or terrorist attack, it can still affect our kids in lasting ways,” says Elizabeth Easton, regional clinical director for child & adolescent services at Pathlight Mood & Anxiety Center. “But, we have the extraordinary capacity as human beings to find meaning in the challenges we overcome. Often that meaning can foster incredible growth, change, and resiliency in the face of future struggles.”
I asked families how they have experienced growth in the face of intense challenges this year. Here’s what I found out.
Love Thy Neighbor
The most common feedback that I received from parents was that, as a result of closures and restrictions that kept them close to home, they finally got to know their neighbors better.
Christy Schaefer, Erie mother of three and founder of the family activity website, Slides & Sunshine, says her kids struggled with the inability to see teachers in person, as well as changes to athletics—each of her children had been excited to play sports again since the previous season ended. Instead, her family became extremely close with their neighbors.
“The kids play together and our families have truly bonded through the experience,” Schaefer says. “We’ve come together to make the most out of a tough time by having movies in the park, themed dinners in the street, water balloon fights, daily walking groups, and even camping together. We went from being a street of acquaintances to being lifelong family friends.”
After having to postpone their family vacations, Arvada parents Jessica and Dave Morrison used their time in quarantine to build a “fence bar” with their neighbors. A section of the fence between the two neighbors’ houses folds down into a bar table at which they can sit and visit. “The whole experience made me feel super blessed to get to know our neighbors better,” says Jessica. The Morrisons, who have one child, also instituted “Sunday Social Distancing” gatherings in neighbors’ driveways where neighbors have been getting to know each other beyond just a wave and a quick “Hi.”
Life in the Slow Lane
Nearly every parent I spoke with also expressed how much they enjoyed the slower pace of life—and that it was something that never would have happened, if not for the circumstances of this year.
“I’ve always been a ‘go, go, go’ kind of person and used to get really anxious during downtime,” admits Holly Yanker, a mother of two from Arvada. “Now, I have learned to intentionally embrace the downtime and realize how much the other members of my family really enjoy those relaxing times, as opposed to always rushing from one activity to another.”
Pandemic worries hit close to home for Arvada mom of two Jenn Hamel, but she says a slower-paced family schedule helped her manage what was going on. Both her parents were hospitalized due to COVID-19 last spring. She also juggled the stress of what her firefighter husband might be exposed to during his shifts, while working to build a new business herself. But, she says, “I love not running the kids around to activities every night of the week. We had time to run errands for my parents, time to go on walks, and decompress. Even when the pandemic is behind us, I don’t think we’ll go back to that many activities. Space for down time—and for the kids to be bored—has been gold.”
As for my family, we’ve been home together since March. My husband has been working from home and our boys attending school via remote learning. Being the primary adult caregiver making sure that my kids are accountable for finishing their work has been frustrating. Getting out of the house into new surroundings has always helped me clear my head and better organize my thoughts, and I miss being able to do that. I have felt very confined at times.
But, we’ve taken this time to try some things that are new for us. My husband and I started cooking breakfast together every morning. It was something that at first seemed quaint (and thus likely to be short-lived) but we’ve kept it up for months now.
We traded our already rare date nights in for more frequent moments throughout each day to catch up, laugh, and connect. These moments have been more gratifying with less pressure. No longer were we trying to pack all of our meaningful interaction into a two-hour date. We finally made family games a part of our routine, and it’s been such an easy way to laugh and connect with our kids.
We’ve also all learned to be more respectful of each others’ need for space, since our time together is not so limited. And this Colorado native who had never been camping before (shocking, I know) was finally willing to give it a go this summer. We ended up going on five camping trips in two months.
Finding More Gratitude
Easton says that she’s noticed the pandemic has increased many people’s gratitude practice. “Whether it’s hugging their kids closer or sending reminders to a loved one that they appreciate them, people have become more aware and truly grateful for the people in their lives. We appreciate what we have when we are at risk of losing it or forced to be separated from it,” she says.
In spite of the challenges Hamel has faced with her parents’ health and work, “joy is a choice,” she says. “There is a bittersweetness to it all. I appreciate the good things, but it’s also hard to know that the reason behind them is because something bad is happening, and a lot of people are hurting. Yet we can still choose joy and gratitude for what we can—no matter how small that thing may be.”
Kim Fleischman is a Colorado native and mother of two boys.