Parenting (Wearily) in a Pandemic: Freeing Your Child from Worry and Disappointment Even Though You Are Exhausted

A mom of a college student recently admitted to me—reluctantly— that she couldn’t listen to her daughter’s disappointments any more about how her dreams for her first year of college were pulled out from under her when her dorm closed and all classes went online. She knew her daughter was upset, but why couldn’t she, like the rest of us, just get over it by now?

Yikes and yikes and, I get it. I really get it. I get mom, I get daughter. And likely you do, too.

We like to think that we are many steps ahead of our kids and can draw on our vast experience with similar challenges and give wise advice. But none of these pandemic challenges are familiar to us. One result is that we’ve had to constantly pivot from calming our own nerves and allaying our own fears and disappointments to doing the same for our kids. The other is that we really don’t know what it’s like for our kids, and we need to admit that and try our best to understand.

But let’s admit something else while we’re at it: It’s exhausting. Really, really exhausting to parent in this time. Our supply of patience and empathy has been running out like the anti-bacterial wipes we bought back in March. But part of what is exhausting— for me anyway— is when my analytical mind tries to reinvent the wheel and think there’s something different I need to do to help rather than sticking with the basics that I know like the back of my hand.

Even though we are living in unprecedented times where the future doesn’t seem trustworthy or unrecognizable, the basics of fear management and resiliency remain the same.

The key, pandemic or anytime, is not to whisk away your child’s uncomfortable feelings. Just like for us, the only way out is through, but we can make the journey more streamlined by accepting the feelings and distinguishing them from facts. The truth will set children (and us) free. The strategies here will help you teach your child to right-size their fears and disappointments and to help your kids build strength with your support. Rather than waving the answer key with all solutions, you can help your child more by lovingly and compassionately asking them questions to help them see the answers they already know (then you can certainly fill in the rest). Here is a seventh-month-into- pandemic refresh on what is most helpful to say to ourselves and to our kids in times of challenge to get everyone through.

How to Respond to Your Child’s COVID-Related Fears and Worries:

Empathize and Normalize Whatever your child is saying—they are afraid about what junior year grades will mean for college when school and life and everything are hybrid and every which way turned around—accept and agree with their feelings, not with their conclusions: “Yes, it feels overwhelming right now.” “Yes, I know it feels so daunting right now.” Help them know that this reaction makes sense, that even you feel that too sometimes: “There’s so much change, I feel overwhelmed too sometimes. We are all feeling that.” Holding this in won’t help them, it helps to let it out.

Fact Check and Edit the Narrative “I am totally freaked out! Everything is different!! I don’t understand anything!” I’m totally going to fail and ruin my future!! What does the future look like anyway?!?!” Taking a closer look at those absolutes we see that what makes us upset is not necessarily the events themselves, it’s that the narrative we have about them because they are negative and feel set in stone. That’s not our fault, by the way. It’s how we’re built. What you can do is teach your child to take out their red pen and like a teacher, edit their worry. Just changing the punctuation can make a big difference, like this: “I’m feeling freaked out right now, because my worry keeps making me feel like everything is different. Some things, even a lot of things are different, and a lot of things I might not know the answer to, but that’s OK. What I can do now is focus on the present, that’s where I have control.” Get in the habit of saying, “Would you like to edit worry, or would you like my help?”

Don’t Distract, Dismiss A lot of times parents (and kids) try to just not think about what’s bothering them. But if you leave worry unedited and unchallenged, it’s going to be very hard to distract yourself from it, just like if you think there’s a bear behind you, distraction won’t work (and isn’t smart!). But if instead first you dismiss the thought because it is a picture or an idea of a bear, in your mind, but there’s no actual bear now, it will be easier to pick up your focus and put it somewhere else. That’s why I say distraction is a great SECOND strategy, but first, name it as a worry—a feeling not a fact— then decide what you want to do instead.

Worry on Schedule: Is Worry Helping or Not Helping? Especially in this time of the pandemic, there are real concerns that we face. Still, worrying all the time isn’t sustainable or adaptive. We need to limit our worry and focus on actions that make an impact. Teach your child to be more in charge and a more discerning “boss” of taking charge of their time. Ask if worrying is helping them now or not. If it’s not but they feel like they can’t stop, say: “OK, since we know it doesn’t help but it’s just really strong, let’s put it on a schedule. Choose two times a day where for 5 minutes you’ll list all your worries, and fact check them. If you get to worry time and can skip it, great, skip it, if not… no worries.”   

How to Respond to Your Child’s COVID-related Disappointments:

Worry is about things in the future that we fear, disappointment is about actual losses, things that didn’t turn out the way we wanted. What’s the secret there?

The Second Edition of my book, Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking, released in January 2020, has 300+ pages of answers. The secret is the narrative. The way we tell the story to ourselves about the things in life that don’t go our way because of anything—including COVID-19—about “what happened and why.” You might think that the short answer is to find what is positive in that narrative and focus on that, but being positive per se isn’t necessary, and sometimes it can even backfire and make us feel worse because we aren’t telling the truth to ourselves about how we feel.

Instead, we can make the narratives more accurate and specific. When we can take a statement like: “This is the worst thing that ever could have happened, my life is over,” and edit it to something like: “This feels like the worst thing that could have happened, it feels sometimes like my life is over, even though I know it’s not,” we “right-sized” our emotions, making them proportionate to the situation at hand. That’s important because first of all we can’t always control what happens to us, but we can choose how we think about those things. And second, when we can edit our first draft of our emotional narratives, the second version doesn’t overwhelm us. By seeing these narratives as something to edit, or test not trust, we understand a key resiliency principle in life: Our feelings while valid, are not facts, and while they may be very, very strong, they are temporary, and don’t align with how we’ll feel with some perspective later on.

Editing disappointment narratives is elusive at first, but kids can get better at it with practice. And they need help.  Left to their own devices, kids (and really adults, too) have trouble keeping their emotions within the rails of the specific event that happened, bringing up past and future disappointments. Things get too big real fast. Parents get overwhelmed with how to help their overwhelmed kids. We scramble and forget everything we know about emotions— that the way “out” is “through.”

Though we want our kids to feel better, we need to resist the urge to “fix,” because kids will feel frustrated about that too! In some ways kid’s disappointment is harder for parents than for kids. We need to have the conversations that help kids see (and remind us) that this moment isn’t wrong even though it feels really bad. It’s part of life, too. This is a time that no one wants to have when kids are going to grow up a little, and parents will have to too.

So how can parents talk to their kids specifically about coronavirus cancelations?

Simple Explanations “Sometimes we have to do hard things to keep everybody safe. Some parts make us sad. But that sadness will go away. But keeping people healthy is the way we have to take care of each other. We want people to do that for us too.

Get curious, be generous and brave and willing to understand what this means to them:

What’s the Worst/Hardest Part? What are they missing the most? Give them a fill in the blank question, “I am so disappointed that x, because y.” You may be surprised by their answers. There may be something good to glean from that disappointment, like— “Wow, you were really ready to try out for baseball even though you were nervous about it. How did you get to that point?” That growth can’t get cancelled. They’ve got it, they will bring it to the next thing they do. What do they want to do with that growth? Just like us, when we’re upset, we don’t necessarily need people to fix things- sometimes they can’t be fixed—but we will feel better when we feel understood. Questions like these bring out that understanding and bring you closer.

Help the Inflection Point Happen If Kids Are Getting Stuck Some kids just need to talk through their distress with you a few times and you can hear by their tone that there’s a steep rise and then things resolve as they feel understood and cared for. Other kids’ wiring makes them dig in and get stuck and they really can’t move on without some help. Their expectations made a deep impression and it’s hard to switch gears.

It Won’t Be the Same, It Will Be Different: Control What You Can Once you’ve helped kids understand what can’t change, help them see they have choices for what to do now. It’s OK for parents to say, “I know this feels really bad right now, it does to me too, but I’m thinking the more we’re talking about it, the worse it’s feeling. Let’s do something else for a while and then see if you want to come back to it.”  Teaching kids to compartmentalize— whether 5 year olds or 15 year olds— parents can explain that they might be upset for a while, but it won’t always feel like this, but they don’t want this one thing— no matter how big— to color everything else. It’s hard enough that they are missing out on one thing, they don’t want to have “Disappointment guy” take away more things. They can make appointments to talk about it with you, and in between, give themselves permission to do other things…

If we, as parents, are willing to get in there and get messy with our kid’s feelings, chances are that by nudging the needle a bit further in their journey of learning how feelings work, they will feel better sooner. Here’s to an end to the pandemic as soon as possible, and to less worry all around.

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tamar chansky phd

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