It’s always important as a parent to have a support system. When many of us are working from home, finding a tribe (if you don’t already have one) can reduce stress while providing reassurance and joy too. The value of strong connections can’t be underestimated, cognitive psychologist Sarah McEwen, Ph.D., Director of Research and Programming at Providence Saint John’s Pacific Brain Health Center, tells Thrive. “Connections are critical for maintaining fundamental aspects of our health and well-being,” she says. “There’s a link between social support and neurobiological pathways which can foster resilience and reduce the risk of developing mental illness and cardiovascular disease.”
Research on the subject has shown that lack of social connection can increase heart rate and blood pressure, as well as having “a negative impact on biological systems that raise the risk for a wide range of conditions and diseases including depression and cancer,” says McEwen, noting that loneliness can result in stress.
Building relationships with friends who are facing similar challenges to us matters because as parents we are often so focused on our children that we forget our own needs. Getting together with friends isn’t as straightforward as it used to be, as the pandemic continues, and it is possible to feel isolated (even if you have children). But there are ways to maintain strong connections and make new friends too.
Here’s how to find your tribe and get the support you need.
Look for those with similar interests to your own
“Many parents are self-critical because they compare themselves to ostensibly ‘perfect parents’ on social media,” says McEwen. Instead of trying to live up to the Instagram-perfect family image, it’s important to have your own view of what it means to be a good parent and then develop a social circle made up of parents who share a similar perspective on life. For example, if you have a specific spiritual practice, you might consider connecting (online, for now) with a church, synagogue, or mindfulness group. On that topic, McEwen says “choose a well-respected organization that provides evidence-based practices, such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) or The Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC),” adding that there are many options online.
“You can find an unlimited number of groups on Facebook in your area with kids of similar ages,” says McEwen. Or you could join a book club, virtual yoga class, or knitting circle. “Being around like-minded people will help you to reframe your sense of social normalcy and encourage you not to compete with others,” McEwen says.
“Connecting via FaceTime happy hour calls or apps like Marco Polo are fun ways to stay in touch,” says McEwen. If you aren’t engaged in virtual groups yet, give them a try. McEwen herself says because she has so many Zoom work meetings, she avoids that app for personal use: “I get Zoom fatigue,” she says and prefers other ways of communicating. And of course, you can always pick up the phone for a supportive chat with a tribe member!
At the best of times, it can be challenging to introduce yourself to a new group of people — and that’s particularly true if you are shy or an introvert (or both). And of course, connecting virtually can be more awkward. The easiest way to initiate a conversation is simply to acknowledge your authentic feelings if you feel nervous or uncomfortable. It’s likely that others in the group feel the same way too. Then talk about your interest or passion for whatever the group is all about — whether it’s philosophy or cooking. For an online exercise class, it should be much easier. You just join in and go from there.
Make time with friends a priority
“As busy working parents, we often feel the need to fill every moment with work, or taking care of our children,” says McEwen. “But we need to carve out time to stay connected to our friends and peer groups.” Make this a priority in your weekly schedules the same way you would with your exercise routine. Having regular time with your tribe can be therapeutic. Ask for what you need in terms of assistance and support. And have a laugh! It’s beneficial to appreciate the humorous side of life, even in difficult times. Laughter has been scientifically proven to be good for our health.
If you can meet your tribe face to face — and safely — it’s great to have eye contact and spontaneity. If you have a bond with your neighbors, that makes everything easy, because you can pop over for a quick chat and let off steam, at a safe distance. “My mom group from my son’s school used to get together monthly at a restaurant,” says McEwen, “but now I meet in my front yard with one or two other moms. We sit six feet apart and wear masks, while the kids do chalk drawings on the driveway and stay distant.” If you and your friends don’t have backyards, you could get together in a park. It’s important to keep that connection going and have a safe place to discuss how we are all navigating the new normal, she says.
Get out of a tribe that isn’t right for you
Sometimes as a parent you can find yourself involved in a group of people who don’t share similar values. Perhaps you’ve met through your children. You’ll know intuitively if you don’t feel in sync with certain people, or find yourself worrying that you don’t fit in, or feel uncomfortable. True friends are accepting and easy to be around. You can be polite and friendly, without being a “member” of a group. Just gently extricate yourself if that’s the case. Also, you’ll be acting as a great role model for your kids. You can explain to them that they don’t need to succumb to social pressure and belong to a friend group, if it makes them uncomfortable and turns out not to be the right one for them.
Encourage kids to find their tribe
It’s a good idea for kids to see their parents getting together with friends, so they realize that we all need support and don’t have to deal with difficulties on our own. Talk to your children about the values and qualities of a good friend — and of being a good friend.