by Steve Adubato, PhD

Like hundreds of thousands of New Jersey residents, our family was without power for four days this past week. And when the power did come on, the heat wasn’t working. I’m not complaining, because some of our fellow New Jerseyans still don’t have power, which is a real hardship. And while much of surviving the aftermath of this most recent storm had to do with keeping warm and dealing with no electricity, another critical component of surviving involved communicating in close quarters with family members.

In our case, we are talking about my wife and our three small children, one of whom is 14 months old. While our 7 and 9 year old boys went back and forth between playing nicely and fighting over the silliest thing, I also sensed that my wife and I were on each other’s nerves more than usual. It soon became clear that we weren’t the only ones. My colleague, Mary, said that her family and neighbors experienced some of the same communication “issues”.

As we are about to enter into 2012, much of our social communication is done via technology. We create distance and are dependent upon technology for entertainment and, in many cases, for a distraction from such intimate and consistent communication with those closest to us. For many, it felt unnatural to be sitting around, talking, listening, and being with each other hour after hour—with no breaks. That’s tough enough, but when the lights are out and it is 40 degrees, we were really tested. With this in mind, consider the following communication tips and tools the next time the power goes out:

--Don’t be surprised when things get tense. Sure, it sounds great in theory that we are going to get to spend a lot of quality time as a family or with others we care about, but the truth is, too much familiarity my not breed contempt, but it does produce pressure. And so, if we overreact to that initial tension, we can make a not so bad situation a lot worse.

--Even if you have the best intentions, that doesn’t mean that those you are stuck with are going to understand or appreciate where you are coming from. Different people have different views on how to handle an emergency. Believing that your view is the only view is guaranteed to produce significant communication problems. The key is to be flexible.

--Don’t react so quickly. Sometimes, even in normal circumstances, our initial reaction is too harsh. We say something we wish we could take back. I know it sounds corny, but you have to breathe and pause. Count to three, or five or, the truly Zen-like can go to ten, and you will be amazed at how those few seconds can give you a different perspective.

--Be present as much as possible. Many people who feel the need to be “doing something” every moment create even more anxiety for themselves and those around them. For some, it is especially hard to let yourself be bored, but sometimes if we embrace the boredom, we can deal with it a lot better.

Finally, if we can better understand how difficult it is for adults to consistently communicate in a positive fashion throughout a power outage—imagine how hard it is for kids who are constantly distracted by video games, handheld devices, television and computers. Take those away and a lot of our kids are clueless as to how to cope, so try to be patient with your kids the next time the power goes out and they start freaking out. I’m going to have to remember to take my own advice next time.