There are so many things that have suddenly disappeared from kids’ lives: sports tournaments, birthday parties, school friends, playdates. How do we help them cope with the disappointment?
Great question! I know a few disappointed adults out here, as well. It is so hard to see our children in pain. The bright side, and we need to keep looking for the bright side during the COVID-19 crisis, is that it’s possible to respond in a way that helps kids weather the disappointments and also build resilience for life’s future difficulties.
When our child is upset about a cancelled birthday party, or not being able to see their best friend, it can be tempting to try to make them feel better. Maybe your teen is devastated by the realization that there might not be prom or grad in a few months. These are the realities we are all facing right now.
We might try to distract them with all the fun things they can do at home, or promise that when things get back to normal we’ll do something even better. We love our kids so much. We don’t want to see them suffer and we’re worried that they can’t handle all these disappointments.
Or maybe it’s the opposite. We might feel worried that they are making such a big deal about such small things. We might try to give them some perspective: At least they have food to eat, Netflix, a roof over their head. Stop whining!
These reactions are completely understandable. But I have a different approach for you.
Don’t try to make your child feel better. Help them stay with the sadness so that they can let go of their disappointment. Help them discover that they can handle all of the curveballs that life will inevitably throw at them in the future.
Think about the last time you were really upset about something. Maybe you had a terrible day at work and your boss was giving you a hard time. You might have said to your partner or a friend something like, “I can’t stand it any more! My boss is such a jerk.” You want them to reply, “Wow. That does sound terrible. I am so sorry you had such a bad day. Tell me about it.” Maybe you’d cry and rage but then you would feel better.
What if instead they said, “Oh come on. It’s not that bad. At least you have a job!” True, perhaps. But not helpful. Not only do we feel dismissed, we might dig our heels in further in our attempt to get some understanding. When we are upset, we need empathy and acknowledgment to move through the feelings and get over it.
When our kids are upset, we need to acknowledge their sadness and disappointment and empathize with them so they can move on. Emotions are like a messy swamp and the only way out is through. We need to feel our emotions to get through to the other side. Only then will the big feelings subside.
It’s okay if you don’t agree that it is the end of the world that they can’t have their birthday party or playdates or organized sports. Empathy is about seeing it from the other person’s point of view. These are the age-appropriate disappointments that will prepare them for bigger disappointments later in life. With your help, your child can learn that big feelings are not an emergency. Resilience isn’t never getting upset. Resilience is being able to recover after a setback.
When your child is upset or disappointed, acknowledge their feelings and empathize with how hard this is. You can say, “Of course you’re disappointed. Anyone would be. I’m so sorry that this is happening, sweetie.” And be quiet. Be with them in their sadness. You can’t fix it, but you know that they can handle it. Take comfort that today’s disappointments build resilience. With your help, they will learn that they can handle anything.
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