Prom, graduation, birthday parties, weddings, baby showers, school reunions, retirement parties… these are just a few of the major life events that have been put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Not to mention sports competitions, opening night of the school musical, art showcases, weekly play dates, after-work happy hours, family vacations. The sheer number of events we all looked forward to that have been canceled or postponed is mindboggling, and deeply disappointing.
How do we help our kids navigate the upset when we don’t really know how to navigate it ourselves? Nobody can tell us how long this will last, how many more events will be canceled, or when we will safely go back to life as we knew it.
If you are struggling with how to have conversations with your children about the things they’re forced to miss out on, you are not alone. (None of the parenting books cover pandemics!)
As parents, we often put pressure on ourselves to hold it together emotionally for our children, but the ongoing nature of COVID-19 makes that hard to do. And if we work too hard to keep our emotions in check, we might actually miss out on some valuable learning opportunities, both for our children and for ourselves.
Following are some suggestions for how to work with your and your children’s emotions to cope with corona-related disappointments.
Make Space for Emotional Expression
Sadness comes in many shapes and sizes. We are all impacted by COVID-19, but in many ways, kids are among those impacted most directly. So much of a child’s day-to-day life is dependent on social interaction. By now, we know that distance learning simply does not hold up to in-person instruction. And beyond formal instruction, much of what children learn at school comes from activities outside the classroom—sports, after-school activities, and even play dates are loaded with opportunities to experience joy and work on teamwork, frustration tolerance, prosocial skills, etc.
Children have every right to feel robbed of this time in their lives. One way we can help is to give them the space to feel the upset they are entitled to.
Just be aware that since children and teens are still developing the ability to express their emotions, they may not always articulate their feelings effectively. While yelling, door slamming, and talking back might rank on your list of unacceptable behaviors at home, you might consider cutting them some slack these days.
They are facing emotions that may be bigger and more consuming than emotions they’ve ever felt in the past. Give them some extra space to feel their feelings however they manifest. Short of being aggressive towards themselves or others, which is never safe and can’t be overlooked, you can show them that you understand how difficult this is by accepting their emotions in any form.
Notice What Comes Up for You
When children experience a surge of emotions, it often evokes strong emotional reactions from parents. Especially when we see our children in pain (particularly pain we can’t control!), we may have an urge to reassure them as quickly as we can in order to get the discomfort over with. Or we may get upset or even defensive because we are doing everything we can to manage the situation, yet it feels awful when that’s not enough.
Whatever it is you feel in those moments, observe your emotions. Don’t try to control or shape them– give yourself the space to feel your feelings. Honor what you feel in the moment, and remind yourself that emotions are constantly changing; any pain or discomfort you may observe will eventually fade away. Mindfully attending to your emotions and allowing them to come and go helps you feel more in control. This practice also models a healthy relationship with emotions for your children.
Listen to What Your Emotions are Telling You
Now that you’re practicing tuning into your emotions rather than trying to change them, you might find that they offer you some valuable information. For example, if you find that you’re getting upset when you hear how upset your child is, your emotions are cluing you in to how he’s feeling and helping your ability to connect to him. Making connections between your own emotions and your child’s can help empower you further in talking to your child and being able to validate where he’s coming from.
Rather than jump to make-it-all-better mode, it can be healing for both of you to talk about how COVID has affected your lives. And this includes the good and the bad! For a great bonding exercise, use the following prompts to guide your discussion:
What is something you’ve missed since the pandemic began?
What is something you’ve enjoyed during the pandemic?
What is something you’re looking forward to when the pandemic is over?
What have you learned about yourself during this time?
Nothing about this situation is normal. It’s only natural for our emotions to come out in unexpected ways (e.g., your child suddenly refusing to eat his favorite food or your teen exploding out of nowhere). The more you can both accept and put words to your emotional experiences, the easier they are to recognize and understand.
This article is adapted with permission from the Sasco River Center in CT. Caroline Segal, a psychotherapist at the Sasco River Center, specializes in the treatment of child and adolescent anxiety, depression, trauma, and behavioral issues.