Cancellations and COVID-19: Supporting our kids through disappointment

Toyota Believe logoI went to four supermarkets in less than 24 hours, trying to find some flour. I’m not hoarding it, we had legitimately run out of flour. The empty shelves at three out of four supermarkets were frustrating and I felt a wave or two of disappointment. You’ll notice I’m using the example of limited grocery items to illustrate disappointment, not the more obvious reality of event and activity cancellations left, right and centre. That’s because I’m an introvert and, as much as I like people, cancellations have always offered a silver lining to me.

Not so my children, however. A shortage of flour is nothing compared to the disappointment my kids have experienced this week, as time and again events and activities they had been looking forward to for months were cancelled. It’s in the best interests of everyone, it’s par for the course, it’s life. We all get that, but watching our kids process the pain of disappointment still tugs at the parental heart strings. Major excitements and high hopes have been dashed. I’ve felt lost for words and a little bewildered regarding how best to help – so I called for back-up. Parenting Place’s coaching team shared with me some timely wisdom.

 

The comfort of connection

When it comes to supporting our children through disappointment, everyone I spoke to reiterated the fact that this is a valuable opportunity for connection. Connection is a great antidote for disappointment, perhaps even the only antidote. It may seem simplistic, but to be allowed to feel sad and to share it with someone who understands the sting of the loss is profoundly helpful. As parents, we need not be too quick to stuff a replacement into the hurt. Instead, take time to sit with your child – feel it, share it, then together plan next steps.

Developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld explains that our children are actually born with the innate ability to be creative, resourceful and resilient, and to problem-solve. They don’t need us to do that for them – what they need from us is connection. Kids look to us for the ability to hold their really tough emotions, of which disappointment is a major.

Another brilliant tool for processing disappointment is helping someone else. We can ask our kids – who else is disappointed and how can we get alongside them to share the load? Families can work together in this way, as often a disappointment for one child affects their siblings too.

 

Five Steps of Emotion Coaching

Insights gleaned from Dr John Gottman’s Five Steps of Emotion Coaching are really helpful in this season of supporting our kids through some pretty rough waves of unpredictability and disappointment.

Step 1: Notice the emotion or disappointment of our children

Step 2: Recognise this as an opportunity to connect and teach, while noticing our own responses or triggers to their emotion. Parents are also carrying stress and anxiousness at this time so it’s important that we attend to our own feelings too.

Step 3: Help your child to name their emotions, e.g., “You must be disappointed” or “I am wondering if you’re sad or hurt or worried?” Bear in mind that our children will be experiencing multiple emotions, possibly all at once.

Step 4: Have empathy, which closely follows Step 3. The “I can understand this must be hard for you” type of approach is key for parenting with connection and supporting our children through tough times. Having empathy powerfully demonstrates “I am in this with you, you are not alone. We are a team who get through things together.”

Step 5: The fifth step is setting limits and problem solving, which will be framed slightly differently depending on context. It could sound like, “The thing I know about you is you are so brave, you are a ‘get through it kid’. Why don’t we have our own little party right here in the lounge. We can bake cup-cakes and make smoothies…”

 

Less is more

Finding the silver linings is a valid response to the disappointment of cancellations – not just for the introverts. Sheridan Eketone probably echoes the sentiments of many a parent: “This is a rather unique opportunity to push pause and do less. Suddenly my evenings are free and I am no longer an Uber driver to rehearsals.” Swap rehearsals for sports training, dance classes, extra-curricular lessons etc, etc, and parents everywhere can surely relate.

Disappointment when things we were really excited about get cancelled is raw and real, but herein lies an opportunity to stop and find ways to reconnect, reassess and recharge. Cancellations and a subsequently clear schedule can be seen as unexpected gifts in uncertain times.

And while we’re looking at the other side of the coin, the current state of play – COVID-19 and its endless implications – is a powerful opportunity to build resilience. Yes, life is unfair sometimes, but other times it’s wonderful. This sort of framing helps our children grow in resilience and enlarges their perspective. It can also help develop empathy and gratitude. As parents, this is very much an opportunity to model some resilience and honesty ourselves, as we meet our own disappointments. We can be real and share that it was hard hearing that the marathon has been postponed. We can also model an adjustment of our thinking and plan something else. We can show our kids gratitude for the chance we had to get fitter while we were doing all that training, and that now we’re grateful that we get to spend more time at home. Children can be inspired to see the knocks as opportunities, or just another reality of life.

Parenting Place has a team of family coaches available to encourage parents and caregivers with practical strategies for everyday challenges. It’s in times like these that the village can really come together to help each other in the noble task of supporting our tamariki – even if coming together is restricted to online interaction, momentarily!

Huge thanks to Jo Batts, Sheridan Eketone, Nicola Gaze, Bridget Gundy and Jenny Hale, who all shared their valuable insights for this article. (Anyone who knows me has already recognised that the marathon example was clearly borrowed from someone else!)

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About Author

Ellie Gwilliam

Ellie Gwilliam is a passionate communicator, especially on topics relating to families. After 20 years in Auckland working mainly in publishing, Ellie now lives in Northland, with her husband and their three daughters, where she works from home as content editor for Parenting Place. Ellie writes with hope and humour, inspired by the goal of encouraging parents everywhere in the vital work they are doing raising our precious tamariki.

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