Helping Our Children Cope with Disappointment in the Time of Covid-19

Let’s admit it. We are all on tenterhooks as we struggle to navigate our new reality.

Indefinite sheltering-at-home and social distancing leave us feeling choked off and unsettled. We miss the intimacy of gathering in one another’s homes and backyards. We miss coming together in our workplace, laughing and eating together. We miss the handshakes, fist bumps, and hugs from friends. In this lifetime, few of us have experienced so much concentrated disappointment and disruption. And this is as true for our children as it is for us.

Any initial euphoria your kids may have felt over a break from school is gone with the wind. Older children are understanding that canceled school, family outings, and after-school activities is their new normal. In many ways, their discontent is not unlike our own. As eight-year-old Stella wrote to Highlights this week: “I’m filled with bore [sic]. I wish there were more to do. I’m ready to get out, but I doubt that we’re going anywhere.”

Our kids’ boredom and disappointments may seem small in a world where our hospitals are inundated with patients affected by Covid-19, and where so many have lost needed income in a devastated economy Is it reasonable to expect that you can lift your child’s spirits when you are carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders? The answer is yes. You may be challenged to find the headspace to attend to your children’s less consequential complaints, but the grief they are feeling over their losses is real and valid. When we pause to help our children grapple with their emotions, we not only help them feel better in the present, but we also encourage them to build traits such as resilience and optimism that will help them throughout their lives.

Here’s the key: Let them feel disappointed, but don’t let them feel helpless.

  • Start by listening. When we actively listen to our children, we say to them, “You matter. And your thoughts and feelings matter.” Listen with an empathetic ear. No judgment.
  • Validate and relate. It’s important that your kids understand that their feelings of disappointment are understandable, normal, and relatable. To make this point, share a bit about disappointment you are confronting in these circumstances, using an example that won’t worry or overwhelm them. Perhaps you are disappointed that your book club can’t meet or that your gym is closed. Don’t make it about you, but talking about how you can relate to what your children are feeling can help you steer the conversation into more positive territory. The difficulty of this situation must be acknowledged before it can be accepted.
  • Teach your kids the value of a good Plan B. It’s hard to watch our kids wrestle with disappointment, and our instinct is to try to make it all better for them. But we don’t have any control over these circumstances, and, even if we did, protecting them from discontent does more harm than good in the long run. The goal here is to give your kids faith in themselves and their own resourcefulness. Aim to affirm their capabilities and help them view themselves as people who can accept disappointment and carry on with a reasonable Plan B they can create and control.

In this time of sequester, most of the disappointments your kids are feeling will be related to the social disconnect. They’re missing their friends, teachers, and extended family. They’re even disappointed to be missing out on their old routine, because routine is predictable and comforting in times of uncertainty. Give them back some control. Let them take the lead in brainstorming some alternative ways to feel more connected. If they need help getting started, you could throw out a few ideas such as video chats, letter writing, round-robin story writing, and recording musical or dramatic performances to share or create together digitally.

Sometimes managing expectations can be helpful in handling disappointment. Help your kids know what they can realistically expect going forward. Guide them, but let them be active participants in creating a weekly schedule—a daily balance of more structured learning activities and fun things to do. Post a family calendar that has been revised to reflect new plans—what’s going to happen as opposed to what was supposed to happen. Let them note scheduled video chats, family walks, Taco Tuesday, Family Game Night, and Work in Your Pajamas Day. A disappointment is often diminished when there’s something enjoyable to anticipate.

  • Adopt an “Attitude of Gratitude.” Once your kids are more accepting of their circumstances and feeling more upbeat, you can direct their thoughts to others. Help them find ways to express appreciation to people who are putting themselves at risk for the greater good. Your kids might send letters and drawings to residents of nursing homes, applaud from a safe distance the neighbor who is a health-care worker, sew masks, or create thank-you posters for first responders, the pizza-delivery person, or the mail carrier. These acts of kindness and appreciation can help kids feel useful and empowered rather than defeated by their circumstances.

Learning to handle disappointment is an important part of your child’s social-emotional development. Remembering that we are all in this together can make their thwarted expectations feel less personal. If we can coach kids not to wallow in disappointment but rather to keep moving forward, they will develop resilience, motivation, and confidence.

Of course, no one could have predicted that our kids would have to learn these lessons in a crash course. But by allowing them to first feel the hurt and then helping them demonstrate that they are capable of turning the disappointment into a positive experience, your kids will take a giant step toward becoming their best selves.

Christine French Cully

Christine French Cully is Chief Purpose Officer and Editor in Chief at Highlights for Children. As Chief Purpose Officer, Cully’s focus is on growing awareness and implementation of the Highlights purpose, core beliefs, and values—to help actualize the organization’s vision for a world where all children can become people who can change the world for the better....