In the age of the coronavirus, everything from schools and sports teams to music groups is closing down. Not surprisingly, this can lead to a lot of disappointment—especially for kids who were looking forward to upcoming events, seeing their friends at school, or important milestones such as graduations or dances. With so much change in the situation from day to day, it is hard to see a clear light at the end of the tunnel.
So, how can we as parents help our kids through the disappointments they are experiencing so we can all come out as healthier and more resilient than before?
Breaking the news to children.
It’s no secret that helping your kids through a tough time can be a challenge. When discussing information about closures and cancellations with your kids, it’s best to use words they can understand, stay calm, and relay only the facts. Be careful not to stray into speculation about what might be canceled next since that can only add to their confusion and fear. If you don’t know the answers to some of their questions, then be upfront about that. Let them know that you will keep them updated as more information becomes available so they know they can trust you to be honest with them about what is happening. For younger children or those with developmental disabilities, it can be helpful to use a calendar to concretely mark off what isn’t happening or to move it to another date later on if you have that information.
But what should we do about their uncomfortable feelings?
Kids have all kinds of emotions around the current pandemic situation and how their lives are being turned upside down as a result. The most effective way to respond when they communicate these feelings is to listen, accept, and empathize. It’s important to acknowledge their feelings and tell your kids that it is OK to have them! If they are feeling angry, sad, hurt, or disappointed, those feelings are all OK, and we need to acknowledge and accept them. You can even share your feelings about the situation to let children know that these emotions are normal and that they’re not alone.
1. Look for behavioral cues about disappointment.
Remember that children of all ages, especially the younger ones, don’t always communicate their feelings with words. Parents should be observant of their child’s behavior, as that is often how they communicate their uncomfortable emotions. They may be more irritable, resistive, teary, or rude than is typical for them, and these can be part of how they are expressing their emotions about all the changes.
2. Model your own communication skills.
You can support them in developing healthy communication skills by modeling words to use and by initiating the discussion. Saying something like “I’ve noticed you seem more angry today when talking to me and playing with your brother, and I wonder if you’re feeling sad about the birthday party being canceled this weekend” can go a long way to helping the child learn healthy ways to communicate feelings and access support.
3. Listen and empathize.
When children are expressing these uncomfortable feelings, a parent’s first instinct is often to try to cheer them up or distract them so they both feel better. This is not helpful and can actually make the situation worse. Trying to cheer them up, dismissing their feelings, downplaying the issue, or telling them to “get over it” doesn’t help them understand the situation or themselves. It also leads them to believe that their feelings are not acceptable and that they need to avoid communicating them in order to keep their parent comfortable. This is not healthy and not the message we want to convey.
Encourage kids to continue sharing their emotions with you so everyone can learn and grow. Of course, how they choose to act on these emotions may need to be discussed. Make sure everyone understands that it’s OK to feel angry or upset, but acting out in inappropriate or disrespectful ways is not acceptable. This is an opportunity to teach and model healthy coping strategies such as deep breathing, movement, or mindfulness activities to soothe and calm the brain and body.
Helping kids move forward.
Once you’ve given your child the news and empathized with them, it’s time to shift into problem-solving mode. Coming up with other activities that can be done from home is a great way to get your kids back into high spirits again. This is an opportunity to practice creative thinking and grow the brain’s problem-solving muscles! For younger kids, you can make a paper chain or chart to track how many days there are until a postponed event. Encourage older kids to write it on the calendar so they can see the event as it approaches again, if and when that information becomes available.
If something larger such as a family vacation was canceled, try doing some activities with your kids to find a suitable replacement trip later in the year. It can be a fun family activity to look at the websites for resorts or theme parks to see what they have in store! This also eases the hard feelings of not being able to go there so soon. Plus, this way, everyone has something to look forward to again, which goes a long way to reducing ongoing feelings of sadness or loss. In fact, planning small activities in the house can give your kids a little something extra to anticipate and break up the monotony of life within the four walls of home.
Disappointment is an opportunity to build resilience.
While it might take some extra time and effort, supporting your children through the inevitable disappointments they are experiencing right now will give them some major advantages in the future. Kids who experience and learn how to handle disappointment and stress are much more capable of dealing with the realities of life as they grow up.
Many parents prefer to shield kids from as much adversity as possible, as watching our kids experience distress can be really uncomfortable for us. In fact, dealing with our child’s disappointment is often harder for us than it is for them! We need to set aside our own discomfort to help our kids develop emotional awareness and resilience in the face of things that feel difficult to manage. Doing this is one of the best gifts we can provide our children, even though it may not feel that way at the time. Allowing children to feel uncomfortable emotions, empathizing with them, and supporting them to move through those is the key to helping them be emotionally healthy and resilient as adults.