In the early days of the pandemic, Andrea Galleguillos tried to keep her anxieties at bay by staying busy with a list of kid-friendly activities. She was on the floor in her home attempting origami with her three children when she broke down.

“And of course nothing works. It was a disaster. I started to cry,” says Ms. Galleguillos, a stay-at-home mother who lives in Oakville, Ont., a suburb west of Toronto, with her three kids, now ages 11, eight and five.

But that moment opened up a conversation, one that is still happening, about the fears and pressures she felt as a parent, and the struggles they all grappled with in lockdown. It was a much deeper discussion than Ms. Galleguillos had ever had with her kids. Being that vulnerable about her feelings was “something I never did before,” she says.

Research conducted over the course of the pandemic has revealed that the global health crisis brought most families closer, a result of time spent hunkered down through restrictions. The pandemic also led to conversations that go well beyond the basics of, “how was your day at school?,” as the fears and anxieties it caused meant parents felt an urgent need to check in with their kids. Six in 10 parents said they had talked to their kids more during lockdown than before, reported a study done by the Vanier Institute of the Family, the Association for Canadian Studies and Leger in the summer of 2020. And a COVID-19 Social Impacts Youth Survey, conducted by ACS, Experiences Canada and the Vanier Institute in May, 2020, found that two-thirds of kids reported having more meaningful conversations with their parents.

The pandemic has enforced a kind of closeness,” says Norah Keating, a member of the board of directors of the Vanier Institute of the Family. “We are, in fact, physically in the same place in ways that people in families have not been for a very long time.”

And while maintaining that level of closeness will be a challenge for many families as schedules return to normal and social calendars pick up, experts say the benefits are worth the effort.

Having meaningful conversations with your kids, whether about your shared fears, family values or simply empathizing with whatever they may be struggling with, has a wide range of benefits, says Jennifer Kolari, a Toronto-based child and family therapist and author of Connected Parenting: How to Raise a Great Kid.

Such conversations help parents and their children feel more closely connected to one another, she says, and that results in lower levels of cortisol, the hormone linked to stress, and increased amounts of serotonin and oxytocin, the hormones known as “the feel good” chemicals.

The key to having meaningful conversations with your children is to be present, Ms. Kolari says.

“Put your phone down. Focus.”

From there, talk to them as a friend would, and avoid the two biggest mistakes parents typically make: Trying to solve your child’s problems or trying to always look on the bright side – what Ms. Kolari calls “cheerleader mode,” which has the effect of making your kids feel that you aren’t empathizing with their issues.

For example, if your child complains they didn’t get invited to a party, cheerleader mode would have a parent saying, “Don’t you worry, because we’re going to have your cousins over and everything is going to be okay!”

Instead, empathize with them the way a friend would, saying something such as, “That sucks, I’m sorry.”

Perhaps most importantly, don’t force the issue.

“When a good conversation happens don’t wreck it by going, ‘Wasn’t that good? Oh that was so fun. Let’s do that again!’” Ms. Kolari says.

Frequency is another thing to be mindful of, says Jess Haines, an associate professor in the Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition and the University of Guelph. It may not be necessary to have these talks as often as we return to normal.

“It’s variable on the kind of kid you have,” Prof. Haines says. Some kids may be apt to shut down if you check in too often. But if there are changes in their behaviour that raise red flags, such as seeming withdrawn, they may need to chat more frequently, she says.

Of course, it’s not just kids who needed to talk about their worries during the pandemic. Parents were more likely to open up to their kids about their own concerns as well, Prof. Haines says.

“As a parent it was hard to hide your own mental health struggles. We had to have conversations about angst.”

For many, the fallout of the pandemic meant having to discuss family values.

“My husband and I have always really tried to have deep conversations with our kids about meaningful things, and I actually think the pandemic is probably one of the reasons why they finally started to stop and listen,” says Corinne McDermott, a mother of two in Toronto and manager of digital at SiriusXM Canada.

When she lost her previous job this past March, Ms. McDermott and her husband sat down with their kids, ages 15 and 12, to talk about how they wanted to spend their time and money from now on – a conversation they had never properly had prior to the pandemic.

“A great deal of it was autopilot and not really stopping to think about why we were doing certain things,” she says. “We had to decide, is a nice house worth not being able to do anything, or how would we feel if we had to downsize?”

If her daughter wanted to continue to take ballet classes, and her son wanted to keep playing hockey, what sacrifices would they be willing to make? As difficult as these discussions have sometimes been, Ms. McDermott has no doubt they have brought her family closer together.

“I feel like we’re more of a unit,” she says.

Ms. McDermott and her husband are trying to keep having meaningful conversations with their kids by trying better to listen to them, rather than listing off solutions.

“We know we’re fortunate that our kids actually do talk to us about meaningful things, but both of us have a tendency to want to jump in and solve problems or fix issues. Learning how to shut up and let them lead the conversation was and is a challenge for us, but the kids are still talking so we are still trying to ‘actively’ listen,” she says.

Ms. Galleguillos and her children made a promise to one another early in the pandemic that they would always be honest about sharing what’s on their minds.

Last week she could tell something was bothering her son, and when she reminded him of their promise he opened up and told her what he was struggling with.

“Even if we don’t have the time we did before, I don’t want to lose that connection,” she says.

The Globe and Mail, October 23, 2021