Everything is canceled: How to help each other deal with the disappointment

Now that everything is shut down for us and the kids, the new reality may begin to sink in. They are missing that much-anticipated birthday party, the gymnastics meet and pajama day; plus the school is trying to turn home into school while mom and dad are trying to work in the next room.

Parents are getting mixed reactions from their kids that range from joy over extra time off to confusion and sadness over missing a canceled event — and often fear of the unknown.

Whether they’re forced to skip a musical performance, a tryout for a spring sport, a visit to their grandparents or a family vacation, simply telling children that disappointment is a part of life won’t cut it. In fact, just thinking about breaking the news may deepen anxiety in parents.

So how can parents help kids process their disappointment? Here is some advice from Jesus and some experts. (Annotating this article from the NY Times).

In Atlanta I saw families headed for Disney right before it was shut down.

Mom and Dad, check your own emotions.

Checking our emotions does not mean evaluating ourselves. Let’s sit down and feel with Jesus and get some encouragement about our value and future. Check in with Jesus and your emotions. The other night I asked our cell, “What encouragement would you give yourself?” Several people gave themselves an admonition to get it together, which did not sound too encouraging. A nonjudgmental look at ourselves would be more helpful — “How am I?” not “How am I bad?” We need our time with Jesus more than ever, so we can be reminded of our value and our future. Jesus is our peace.

Robin F. Goodman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and art therapist in New York City says. “Fear can be contagious, so above all, parents need to monitor and manage their own worry, especially in front of their children. The good news is this also means that calm is contagious.” Jesus is our calm.

Be calm and honest

The government, the president in particular, were deceptive from the beginning about Covid-19. Senator Burr was selling off his holdings while helping to delay letting the public in on what he knew! Jesus is frank: “Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them” (Luke 6:46).

I’m not recommending having a house full of fury. But breaking down the situation into a child-sized narrative can help. Denying that something big is happening is dishonest. Trying to make things “normal” might create more anxiety than going with the abnormal flow. If we are not honest, the big unknown gets bigger and imaginations run wild with one’s own interpretation.

Gayle Cicero, Ed.D., a clinical assistant professor at the Loyola University Maryland School of Education says, “Regardless of a child’s age, honesty is the best approach.” But don’t throw out adult concepts children can’t handle. “Terms like ‘the right thing to do’ or ‘think about the elderly’ or ‘for the greater good’ are hard to grasp when, developmentally, kids are in a stage when their worldview centers around them, their family, and perhaps their neighborhood and friends.” That doesn’t mean we should dumb things down disrespectfully, but it does mean we may need to teach our kids what we are talking about when we say things like “trust God” or “even if I die, I will live again.” Our forced Sabbath would be a great time for a daily check in with the family to reinforce our common understanding, narrative and affection.

Image result for jesus compassion

Let everyone feel what they feel

Maybe you could ask the kids to illustrate the story you tell about Jesus feeling compassion for sick people, or the time he wept over the whole city of Jerusalem. Christianity first flourished among people who were disempowered and had little hope. Teens, in particular, may be facing all sorts of disillusionment, now that the society’s over-confident sense of power and control is falling apart. The pastors keep telling us our church was built for times like these. We have a place for and answers for the questions our feelings arouse.

Dr. Neha Chaudhary, M.D., child and adolescent psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital says, “When breaking the news of cancellations, parents should focus on validating their children’s emotions, whether that is disappointment or fear or something in between. Kids often gain comfort in knowing that they are not alone. It may help for parents to say that a lot of kids are feeling the same way and even admit that they are a little worried, too. At the end of the day, the most important thing that parents can do is to send their kid the message that it’s OK for them to feel what they are feeling. These are the interactions that help a child feel seen.”

Naming your child’s emotion (for example, saying, “That must be so disappointing”) helps them begin to realize what they are feeling, said Leighanne Scheuermann, an educator based in Dallas. “In the long term, your child is more likely to remember how you respond to their emotions and also will recognize the efforts you made to make the situation better for them.” The process of naming helps us all feel like we have choices we can make and feel like we are not completely helpless.

Learn about managing stress together

Many families in the U.S. are feeling the shock of not being in control. Their careful schedules are nonsense, their finances are shaky and their future is uncertain. In many ways this gives us all a new way to hear the Bible. The New Testament, in particular, is mainly written to people who were threatened by the authorities for following Jesus, and most of them were not that well off to begin with. 1 Peter, especially, takes on new layers of meaning, right from the beginning. (Try reading it every day for the rest of Lent):

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

Some believers turn this into “Don’t worry, be happy” and turn their faith into another defense against feeling or facing what they fear. I read it as encouragement to let our faith ground us when the whole earth is being shaken. If you talk this over with the kids, you may find they have more natural faith than you expected. They might not have been trusting God because they were trusting you as you trusted your own power!

Roseann Capanna-Hodge, Ed.D., a psychologist and pediatric mental health specialist psychologist in Connecticut  says, “Disappointment can be linked to a feeling of loss of control in children. When you have to talk about canceled events that kids were looking forward to, think about it as a learning opportunity to manage disappointment. We often are so worried that our kids will get upset when we should be thinking: ‘What can my child learn here? Can they learn about managing stress and feeling upset?’”

It helps just to be a listening ear so your child can freely vent her frustration. It is tempting, as parents, to swoop in and wipe out disappointment. But, Dr. Cicero said, parents can actually get in the way of a child’s development when they do this. “Plus, there’s something so therapeutic about a person willing to hear you out and just be with you,” she added.

We will need more imagination than Netflix

I have been heartened by the amount of creativity and connectivity people have poured out this week. Some people have spent all their energy hunkering down and feeling shocked, of course. But others jumped right on it and shared their ideas and love.

Now we know the infectious atmosphere is apparently going to be around for a while. So we’ll eventually need to do something but watch TV. The other day one of our cell members got on our video text app and got us to sing encouraging songs to each other! That helped. Maybe you could have a family theme song for this new depth of Lent we are experiencing. Here is one from the deep Circle of Hope archive about waiting (Ps. 40): I waited for the Lord. (This is also good dance music for stuffed animals).

When a child’s emotions are really starting to disrupt his usual disposition or he seems stuck in a funk, it’s time for some creative direction from the parents. Alexandra Friedmann Finkel, L.C.S.W., a licensed clinical social worker and therapist in New York says, “A fun technique to distract younger kids is a color game. Have your child choose a color and look around the room to point out everything he can see in that color. This can help a child break the worry spiral and calm the body and mind,” she said. A mother was playing “I spy” with her kids on my final subway ride.

Dr. Goodman says, “Once your child is in a good place emotionally, don’t make any promises about rescheduling events or making up for lost time.” Instead, focus on what you can do now for enjoyment or to support your community. For example, rather than the planned movie party with friends, maybe you can improvise and celebrate a birthday at a park by flying kites and riding bikes with children who are present on Facetime.

Scheuermann suggests if your child is upset about missing the chance to star in a play, ask if she wants to put on a play with the stuffed animals. Maybe you can Zoom with Grandma for her birthday or support a local business by having a cake sent to her. Maybe you can film the stuffed animal play and send it to Grandma! If a vacation has been canceled, have the kids create a poster board of activities they wanted to do on that trip. Essentially, find a way to modify the missed activity so it can be creatively executed at home.

Dr. Capanna-Hodge says routine is crucial when tackling school closures, whether the teachers sent home a lesson plan or not. “Just by putting a routine in place can help alleviate stress for children and their parents. Create a homeschooling schedule and go over it every morning with your children and teens. Make sure to have consistency in your day-to-day and incorporate breaks, exercise and snack time.” Keep a physical copy of the schedule your child can look at, too. Watch out, of course, lest you interpret a child’s stress-induced resistance as a reason to get tough or give up. We can ease into it and build up our capacity. We’re facing enough losses, we don’t need to create more.

Dr. Capanna-Hodge says research shows those with a positive outlook can manage stress better and actually live longer. So this is a time to help foster resilience in our children. “While some kids have a glass-half-full outlook naturally, others need to develop that over time, and these kinds of disappointments are great opportunities to do so.” Obviously, making a crisis into a long lesson on religion and human development is not likely to feel that great — and merely knowing lessons does not breed enough resilience. But taking our best shot at wisdom enacted in love will bring hope to the whole household.

The regions of the internet I inhabit were filled with good people inventing helpful things for their kids to experience. Part of my motivation for writing this was to stoke the fire of that creativity, hope and sharing. The Circle of Hope Parents Listserv, Facebook, and your neighborhood email list (better create one!) are all good places to keep sharing. I don’t think the government is going to do a great job at saving us (again!), and I don’t think we will do that great a job at saving ourselves. But I do think we can cooperate with our Savior and humbly receive (and wisely judge) input from experts as we navigate these uncertain waters. I don’t know a better way to get home.

Use the comments section here or the Parents List to share what you are feeling and learning!

About Rod White

Development Pastor for Circle of Hope, http://circleofhope.net , grandparent, church planter, peacemaker, comrade, spiritual director, psychotherapist, silence lover

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