How do we ask those around us if they’re okay – when faced with the unique challenges surrounding the pandemic?

21 September 2020

Each September, we use R U OK?Day to remind Aussies to check in with each other. But this year, thanks to the pandemic, we are surrounded by people going through all sorts of struggles. The isolated. The elderly. Overwhelmed parents. Children stuck at home. The unemployed. Those separated from their families for months on end.

So how do we ask the different people in our lives if they’re okay? And what language and strategies will be most effective for each group? We speak to one of our counsellors, Clarissa Wijaya, to answer these exact questions.

The isolated elderly

If you know someone living alone or in aged care, how do you check in with them beyond ‘are you okay?’.

As a starting point, try asking about the positives of their situation. Is there something good that’s happened to them in the past week or a fond memory they can recall?

There is significant research suggesting that this line of conversation results in positive affect. In other words, it can help lift people out of loneliness and isolation.

Here are some other strategies you can try too:

  • Prompt them to reflect on something they’re grateful for – similar to how a gratitude journal works.
  • Weave humour and nostalgia into your conversation by reliving funny memories or times you’ve shared with the person.
TOP TIP: It’s not particularly useful to demote your loved one’s feelings by telling them, ‘Yes, this situation is lonely, but everyone’s feeling the same’. This may ‘deny’ their emotions.

Parents juggling work and home-schooling

Many parents are at the end of their tether. The home-schooling gig has been going on for a while now, and often, they’re feeling like it’s all a bit too much.

So, what do you say when reaching out?

  • Validate their struggles. Don’t gloss over the fact that their little one interrupted a Zoom call with a client by saying that everyone’s kids have done that. It doesn’t make their challenges any less potent.
  • Communicate that they can talk to you about what they’re going through whenever they need to. Juggling so many roles at once – all while dealing with their own emotions surrounding the pandemic – is a tiring, thankless task. So convey that they’ve got your support.
  • Steer away from clichés such as ‘this too shall pass’. Rely on what’s in your heart – a genuine message of support is much more meaningful than advice they’ve heard a thousand times before (and that could apply in any situation).
TOP TIP: Remind yourself to continue to check in regularly. We all know that some days can be harder than others and emotions are inclined to fluctuate from one day to the next.

Parents juggling work and home-schooling

It’s no secret: kids are pretty candid in their emotions – which can be useful for identifying when they’re not coping so well.

Here are some strategies when talking to kids who are still developing their emotional intelligence:

  • Try open-ended questions. These are much more likely to provoke attention and prompt them to share. For example: ‘Can you tell me which aspects of the lockdown you’re finding the hardest?’ or ‘What do you think you can do to make yourself feel better?
  • Emphasise that whatever feelings they are experiencing are normal. Kids don’t want to feel alienated or ‘different’; they’re still trying to find their place in the world.
  • Also aim to help them understand what they’re going through. Offer guidance by giving them some specific techniques. For instance, share what makes you feel better when you’re down.
  • Try to stay away from commanding statements (like telling your child to put down their computer to speak now). We all know that the moment you start telling kids what to do, you’ll get the opposite!
  • For younger children who may not have the vocabulary to express their thoughts and emotions, try a scale for mood checks. For example, 1 is ‘not great’ and 5 is ‘amazing’.
TOP TIP: Currently, kids’ social bubbles are limited to their household. So another technique can be suggesting to speak to someone else they trust, like an aunty, uncle or even friends’ parents.

People who have lost their jobs

Job loss resulting from the pandemic is an incredibly stressful experience. It can cause financial anguish and a loss of identity, structure and purpose.

So when speaking with people in this situation, understand that they’re likely feeling a mixed bag of emotions – sadness, worry, blame and hopelessness are common.

Here, sensitivity and kindness are key.

  • Keep in mind that many people struggle to reach out when in need for fear of being a burden. Reassure them that you feel gratified they trust you enough to open up – and that there’s no badge of honour for bottling up emotions.
  • Validate their feelings and give them time to grieve. Then try to support them by focusing on the positives.
  • Brainstorm with the person their personal strengths and achievements. This can help them feel more self-confident and hopeful about finding work in the future.
TOP TIP: Try to practise active listening (rather than fixing or solving their problems). To help, pose, ‘What do you need?’ questions.
Framing is important here. Asking, ‘What do you need?’ is different from saying, ‘Do you need x’ or, ‘Can I help you with y?’. While your intentions are good, you’re not in their situation and so can’t fully understand their thinking. So when you suggest something you think they need, you’re making an assumption.

People separated from their family

Overseas, interstate, or even outside Victoria’s 5km radius of movement. Wherever someone’s family is, if they’re not nearby, this can put all sorts of strain on emotions.

So what if you notice someone is having trouble coping without their family near?

  • First, ask them if they want to talk about it. They might be having trouble reaching out and need someone else to initiate the first move. On the other hand, they might not want to discuss it at all, which is fine too. It’s really just about showing your support.
  • Ask them if their emotions are centred around feeling like they should be with their family but aren’t, or instead around being worried for their loved ones’ health and safety. Getting clarity around this can help reduce feelings of guilt for staying, or feelings of hopelessness if they’re unable to travel.
TOP TIP: Consider that without family nearby, they’re essentially missing close connections. So ask them if they’d like to join a community or group who can offer that. For some, this might be an online book club. For others, it’s a religious group. Turn to your own network and see what you can share with them or invite them to.
Then introduce them to others within this group. They might end up forging valuable connections – which means more links they can rely on and open up to.

With the help of Clarissa Wijaya, we hope you’re feeling more confident about starting the conversation with those struggling because of coronavirus. Remember, you don’t just need an event like R U OK?Day as an invitation to check in. Regularly touch base with the people in your network – and follow up with anyone who may be particularly struggling.