When the effects of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) first took place, it may have been hard to comprehend the impact. Children and teens may have even felt some excitement about the extra time away from school or for the break in routine.
However, as the virus spreads and social distancing measures continue, those initial reactions may be replaced by new feelings. Older children might be struggling to understand that they may not see their classmates again this year, or that long-awaited prom or graduation celebrations may not happen. Younger children may be upset that they can't have their friends over to celebrate their birthday, or just miss the fun of everyday activities such as going to the playground.
"It's not lost on parents how disappointed children may feel with missing celebrations and major milestones," says Kimberly Williams, LCSW, clinical social worker at Children's Health℠. "Some children may experience heartbreak, anger or disbelief – everyone experiences grief differently."
Williams shares four ways parents can support their children and help them cope with disappointment during this time.
1. Encourage open communication
One of the best ways to support your child is to simply ask how they are doing – and listen. "We all react differently to stress," Williams explains. "By encouraging your child to express their concerns and validating how they feel, you give your child the comfort of knowing that they are not alone."
Based on your child and your child's age, they may need different levels of attention. Gauge your child's ability to understand what is going on and ask open-ended questions about how this makes them feel. You can have these conversations around the dinner table, when you're taking a family walk or even in a weekly family meeting where everyone is invited to share what's on their mind. During these conversations, make an effort to encourage active listening and openness. See more tips for talking to your child about coronavirus.
2. Give your child (and yourself) permission to grieve
In a time when many people are facing different types of health challenges, you or your child may feel silly or even guilty for being upset about missing an event. However, Williams says it's important to acknowledge your feelings – and allow yourself to feel them.
"Everyone's loss is significant, and there is no one right way to grieve," she says. "We're experiencing all sorts of changes to our day-to-day lives, and that is difficult."
Let your child know it's okay and normal to be upset about missing school, their friends and events they have long anticipated. While it's helpful to make sure your child understands why these events were canceled and the importance of social distancing, it does not mean they cannot feel disappointed. Avoid making any predictions or immediately rescheduling plans to avoid further disappointment.
Williams also encourages parents to check in with themselves frequently and to practice self-care, since children often take their emotional cues from caregivers. "As a parent, it is crucial you are in touch with how you feel and express your emotions appropriately, so children feel permission to experience loss in their own appropriate ways," she says.
3. Brainstorm creative ways to celebrate
While celebrations and special events may not be able to happen as planned, look for creative ways to make the day special for your child. Include your child in brainstorming ways they'd like to celebrate at home or surprise them with a special treat.
Virtual celebrations are a new way to maintain social connection while practicing social distancing. If your child was supposed to have a birthday party, sporting event or school party, help them set up a video conference with their friends or teammates on that day. Invite friends and family members to send video messages to your child congratulating them on an accomplishment like graduating or wishing them a happy birthday. Or, you can organize a "drive by" celebration where friends and family drive in front of the house with signs and banners, wishing your child well while maintaining a safe distance.
Beyond virtual celebrations, here are other ideas to make a day special at home:
- Within reason, have a "kids make the rules" day
- Have a themed movie marathon
- Order curbside takeout from one of your family's favorite restaurants
- Host a "campout" either inside your home or in the backyard
- Decorate the house with signs or balloons as a surprise for when your child wakes up
- Bake a special treat together
- Have your child still dress up for an event and take pictures of them
"These celebrations may look different than what your child hoped for, but they can still be meaningful," says Williams.
4. Focus on the positives, find purpose and be present
While there is bound to be disappointment during this time, Williams says there is also opportunity. "There is power in accepting things you cannot control and focusing on what you can control: your attitude and what you do to respond to your loss," she says.
During this time, set an example for your children by using daily positive affirmations. Share what you love about them or how they have made you proud. You can also identify examples of how the family has gotten stronger, together.
Think about ways you can encourage others in your community. Involve your child in brainstorming ways you can help make the days special for others – whether sending a card to encourage a health care worker, chalking the sidewalk or participating in a neighborhood window scavenger hunt. Connecting as a community can remind your child that we are all in this together and create a sense of purpose while at home.
Lastly, instead of anticipating anxiety about the future, make an effort to focus on the present moment. As much as you can, put down your phone, turn off the news and be intentional about the quality of the time you spend together as a family. While this is a challenging and uncertain time, remember it will not last forever.
Between school closures and canceled events due to COVID-19, children and teens may feel upset about missing out. Children's shares ways to help navigate these hard situations with your child.
For more resources on helping children understand COVID-19 and keeping your family healthy during this time, visit the Children's Health℠ COVID-19 hub.
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