Understatement of the decade: The past two years have been a bit of an adjustment for families. The pandemic has been full of disappointments, both large and small, as major events and milestones—birthdays, graduations, family vacations—were delayed, downsized or canceled. While these changes are upsetting for adults, they can be downright devastating to children.
Because children have had fewer life experiences, each event can hold more importance to them than to adults. Being the lead in the school play (or even the third tree from the left) is a major accomplishment! Children also have less emotional control, so they have a harder time managing their feelings. These factors are heightened by social distancing, which has thrown off everyone’s routine and increased stress levels.
Together, these factors make it difficult for children to handle disappointments. As parents, we can help our littles by giving them tools to handle disappointment.
The following phrases can help you soothe both young and older kids and work towards a reasonable solution when they’re feeling disappointed.
For younger kids: “I know not being able to (X) is hard.”
When children complain about an event that was canceled, or that it’s unfair they can’t do something they used to do, try sympathizing with them. Sometimes kids don’t want or need a solution, they just want to be heard. Echoing their feelings by agreeing the situation is hard (or unfair or frustrating) can help kids feel heard and validated.
For older kids: “Let’s talk about it.”
Much like the above phrase for younger kids, this phrase lets older kids know you sympathize with them and respect their feelings. Older children may have multiple emotions about the situation: sadness at missing out, anxiety or even guilt. Using this phrase allows children the space to express their emotions without feeling like you’re telling them what to do or how to feel.
For younger kids: “Sometimes, it helps me to (X)”
Children are often stuck in their emotions and struggle to find effective coping strategies. Telling your children what to do (“You need to take a deep breath.” “You need to go calm down.”) can be frustrating; nobody likes being given commands when they’re upset.
Offering ideas instead of giving commands allows children to choose what sounds helpful to them. It often helps to offer a few strategies you think may work, saying, “Sometimes it helps me to take some deep breaths or pet the dog when I’m upset,” or “Sometimes it helps me to go for a bike ride or paint a picture when I’m sad.”
For older kids: “What can I do to help?”
Unlike little kids who need to be taught coping strategies, older kids may already know what they need. Asking this question shows you’re interested in helping however they need. They may ask for a hug, a break to calm down, a chance to talk or an idea for how to solve the problem. They may also say, “I don’t know,” which is a great opening for you to offer some ideas that help you.
For younger kids: “I know we can’t (X), but what if we (Y) instead?”
When kids are upset that they can’t do things the way they have in the past, it can help to show them new ways to have similar experiences. Although they can’t have a birthday party, they can have a virtual birthday party where friends sing to them. Although they can’t perform in the final concert, they can record their part and email it to family members. Help kids find novel solutions during social distancing so they don’t miss out on activities, they just do them in new ways.
For older kids: “I know we can’t (X), but let’s find another way to do it.”
Rather than tell older children how to fix the problem, this phrase shows that you’re open to their ideas. Older kids often have lots of ideas on what they want to do, but may doubt you’ll approve their solutions. This phrase opens the door for them to share their ideas, and then you can work together to try to make one work.
For younger kids: “I’m sorry this is happening. I wish I could fix it for you.”
Sometimes kids just want to know you’re on their side. Using a simple phrase that confirms what’s happening is real and frustrating, while also indicating you’re there to help, can be extremely powerful. You’re showing your children that even though times are difficult, you’re there for them.
For older kids: “Things are pretty strange right now. What do you need to make it easier?”
The reality is that our lives are completely different than they were two years ago. We’ve thrown a lot at kids, especially older ones. They’re missing camp and school, stuck at home without their friends—and because they’re big kids, they’re expected to navigate it without tantrums or attitude. Allow children to express how hard things are, and remember it’s okay to baby them, just a little bit, while they adjust.
Although the phrases above won’t magically fix anything, they can help children cope with their disappointment. The goal is to let children know their feelings are valid and you’re willing to help them, however you can.