Like many parents, my husband and I have been struggling the last several months with being the constant bearers of difficult news. Just this week, we had to inform our 9- and 4-year-old daughters that their art and dance camps wouldn’t be reopening and that our beloved annual family vacation to the Oregon coast was canceled. Would this announcement about school closures be too much disappointment for them to handle, maybe even traumatizing?
“Probably not,” says Jamie Howard, clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. Howard believes these changes to our children’s routines, though unsettling, will likely be “stressors, not traumas,” giving parents the opportunity “to mitigate the negative effects of stress.”
Here are six strategies suggested by experts to help parents share disruptive news, while helping their children feel more supported and resilient.
Give them the information they need, but don’t interpret it. While this sounds simple, sometimes telling the truth isn’t easy. As parents, our impulse is often to shield our children from pain, a topic that psychotherapist Amy Morin spends an entire chapter exploring in her book “13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do.”
In a recent interview, Morin told me that when kids are not given the chance to navigate through discomfort, they don’t realize they are able to work through it. And when they do learn the once-hidden information, they may infer, “If mom and dad didn’t tell me about this, it must be because they think I’m not able to handle it.”
She recommends finding a quiet moment to share the news, giving only the details they need to make sense of things in a developmentally appropriate way, and leaving out statistics and gruesome details about the virus itself. As opposed to beginning the conversation with “I got really terrible news today,” Morin encourages parents to let kids interpret the information for themselves without commentary.
Parents sharing the news about school going virtual could say, “I wanted to let you know that I just got an email from your school district saying that we won’t be able to start the year back on campus. You will still be assigned a class and teacher, but initially you will meet on Zoom.”
It’s important for parents to explain the “why,” Howard says. Kids may need explanations around the reasoning for social distancing and the sudden halt to in-person activities. Giving kids an understanding of how doctors and scientists are working to develop medications and treatments reveals how people are problem-solving and reinforces that this situation is temporary.
Let them have their feelings. Although it’s heartbreaking to see our children hurting, we must give them space and permission to feel angry or frustrated or miserable. Kids will need to work through their difficult feelings, and younger children may need help identifying them (“are you feeling sad or mad?”). Our job is to validate their feelings, not judge them.
It’s hard to let kids “sit in their disappointment,” Morin says, but she urges parents not to rush to make things better by taking them for ice cream or focusing on just the positives.
“It’s more important to give them a balanced view,” she says. For example, say, “We’re going to be able to do certain things because you’re not going to be in school, but on the other hand, you’re going to miss your friends a lot, too.”
As we validate our kids’ feelings, it’s an opportunity to empathize. Be mindful not to burden them with concerns about child care, work and long-term safety, but Morin says parents need to resist the temptation to paste smiles on our faces. It’s much more beneficial to model coping strategies by saying, “I’m really sad about this, but here’s how I’m going to take care of my sad feelings.”
Younger kids especially will need coaching to cope with their feelings. “Maybe you say to them, ‘I know you are really sad right now. What are two things you could do?’ ” Morin says. Parents can make a couple of suggestions or help little ones fill a shoe box with calming items such as a favorite book or scented lotion.
Don’t go into it with an agenda. As parents, we often want to get the uncomfortable discussions over with. We are inclined to have “the sex talk” or “the drugs talk,” and then breathe a sigh of relief and cross it off our list. But Morin says that these types of conversations, as well as the ones related to the pandemic and changing routines, benefit from being ongoing.
Once we share the most pertinent information, we should let our children’s questions and input guide us, even if it means that initial conversation stops. Kids may need time to process their feelings alone before being open to talk more.
Also, Howard encourages parents to respond to kids’ questions truthfully and with developmentally appropriate information. If children inquire about the specific date that they will be able to return to campus, for example, be clear that you don’t have all of the answers. Then promise that as soon as that information is available, you will let them know.
Reassure them. In this time of so many unknowns, life can feel overwhelming. When sharing difficult news, Morin says parents should emphasize that this may be disappointing, but we are strong enough to deal with it.
In addition to reassuring them that they can cope, Howard recommends we find ways to model what flexibility and problem-solving skills look like. “So you can say, ‘I was really counting on you going back to school, so I could go to work. It looks like that’s not going to happen, so we’re going to have to be flexible here, and we’re going to have to figure out a new way to handle this.’ ”
Have realistic expectations. It’s easy to worry that we are falling short or our kids aren’t rebounding as quickly as we’d hoped. Remember, though, that your “job is to be good enough right now,” Howard says. “Context matters, and we’re living in a pandemic. So you want to be pandemic-level good.”
She also says many people misunderstand what resilience means, thinking that we should somehow emerge from a difficult situation as a better version of ourselves. “Resilience means putting one foot in front of the other and meeting developmental milestones,” Howard says. “It’s getting through a stressful situation without tremendous harm done.”
Find more support, if necessary. Each family is navigating its own circumstances and challenges, many of which are straining them financially and socially. Sometimes the best thing parents can do is seek help. Whether we are struggling ourselves or worry that our children are stuck in feelings of anxiety or depression, it’s important to reach out for support. Look for free resources offered by your state and county, or ask your doctor or friends for therapist referrals.
“So much of parents’ anxiety is feeling they don’t have the right answers,” Howard says. “Therapists can help you work through something like that,” even if it’s evaluating school options or role-playing difficult conversations with your kids.
As I prepare for my own discussion with my girls, I think about our last several months. While we’ve definitely had our share of acting up and melting down (kids and adults alike), I realize my concern about resilience was not only for my children. I’ve been scared that I may not be strong enough to face the challenges ahead. Although no one knows what the future holds, I can only do my pandemic-best. We all will. And that’s enough.
Felice Keller Becker has written for Glamour, Men’s Health, Insider and more. She is working on a book about resilience and her journey to find it. You can learn more about her at FeliceKellerBecker.com.