In a world impacted by Coronavirus, it can seem like everything fun has been cancelled. There are so many things that have suddenly disappeared from our children’s lives – birthday parties, holidays, visiting grandparents, play dates – so many special things your children have hoped and planned for are suddenly either postponed or simply not happening now. There are also many adults that are disappointed because sport, special events and celebrations have had to be postponed or cancelled too. Disappointment is not an easy emotion to sit with and it’s hard for us to see our children disappointed and upset because of all this turmoil. The following suggestions will provide you with practical strategies and ways to respond that will help our kids through these challenging times.
When we are talking with our children about things that have been postponed or cancelled, we need to deliver the news in a truthful age-appropriate way without minimising or catastrophising the situation. Let them know as soon as you’ve found out, that way they find out from you and not others and you can be there to help them work through their feelings. We need to help them understand why it has happened and what it means for them. We also need to be prepared to answer their questions – they may ask “what’s going to happen with school? or “will I be able to graduate?”. Respond calmly and truthfully acknowledge that you don’t have the answer by saying something like “That’s a really good question and I can’t answer it right now. But together we can watch what is happening and see if things change.”
Let your child feel their emotions
Somehow in our culture, protecting our kids from discomfort—and the pain of disappointment—has become associated with effective parenting. The idea seems to be that if your child suffers any discomfort or the normal pain associated with growing up, there’s something you’re not doing as a parent. Although it can be tempting to help a child whenever they’re struggling, rescuing them from disappointment denies them the opportunity to develop some important coping skills.
Kids need to build up a tolerance for disappointment and discomfort, an emotional callous if you will. Building this tolerance is important because disappointment is a big part of life. We have to learn to lose a game or to get passed over for a promotion. Life is naturally full of disappointment even for the most successful people.
Your child needs to be able to learn how to manage these situations in order to develop a tolerance for them. That’s why it’s critically important to give our children the space and time to feel their emotions. When they stay with the emotion and feel the disappointment, frustration or anger they can learn to move through it and let go of these feelings. They discover that they can experience these emotions and survive, even if it is incredibly painful.
Acknowledge, validate and empathise
Think back to the last time you were really upset or disappointed about something, maybe you missed out on a promotion, or a celebration you’d really been looking forward to was cancelled. You might have come home and talked to your partner or friend saying something like “I can’t believe it, I was the right person for that role” or “It’s so unfair that the celebration’s been cancelled we worked hard all year for that”. You’d want them to understand and reply with something like “It sounds like you had a terrible day – tell me about it” not “it’s not that bad, you can apply again – at least you have a job”, or “you can celebrate that next year”. These may be true but they’re not at all helpful because they make us feel dismissed and not understood. When our children are upset, they need to know we have heard them, that we acknowledge what they’re feeling and that it is ok to feel that way. We can do this by saying something like “I can see you’re disappointed and I would be too. I’m sorry that this is happening.” Then, we simply sit there with them, supporting them or giving them space if they need it to process their emotions. We can’t fix it for them, but we can trust that they can handle it and be there with them as they work through their big feelings.
Figure out what makes them feel better
Once children have accepted the news and vented their disappointment, frustration, anger or sadness then we can guide them towards a positive acceptance of what they can’t control and focus on what they can control. Come up with new plans or different ways of doing things that fit the current circumstances. Coming up with these ideas provides them with a sense of control during this turmoil, empowering them to be part of the solution and to take action and not feel so helpless.
As parents, we are leaders for our children, what we model and the tone we set is what they will absorb and internalise. It is our job to model ways to deal with the disappointment that build our children’s resilience and ability to handle life’s future adversities.
Kari Sutton is an educator, speaker and author who has helped over 25,000 children, parents, and educators with evidence-based strategies, tools and approaches to foster children’s positive mental health and plant the seeds of resilience, emotional wellbeing and mental fitness in our children.