By: Lisa Ahern, PhD – June 26, 2020
I’m not sure what’s worse: not knowing what’s going to happen or knowing that we’re not going to like it! As a parent, I’ve been worrying because I don’t know what school is going to look like for my kids next year – and how will I break the news? There’s a message going around saying that when talking to kids about next school year, if the news is “bad,” parents should “fake it” and be positive in order to set the tone, even they themselves are unhappy about the plan in place. There is definitely some truth here – kids can learn how to handle situations by watching what we do and say, so reacting in an overly negative way can start things off on the wrong foot.
BUT, I don’t think that means we should necessarily “fake” it and put on an overly positive show either. I know a lot of kids who would see right through that if you really weren’t “feeling it.” As a parent, you know your child best, and different kids may need “bad” news presented in different ways. If they are feeling disappointed, angry, or anxious about the situation, an overly positive reaction from parents may make them feel like their feelings are wrong or that they are disappointing parents if they don’t “fake it” too. Dealing with difficult emotions can be hard for everyone, even in the best of times.
So what can we do? A few thoughts:
- First, use what you know about your kids. Is your child a happy, go-lucky kid who rolls with things pretty easily? Keep it matter of fact and positive, but let them know you’re there to talk about it more if they want to. Has your introverted child been living their best life the past few months because they were born for online schooling and staying home? If that’s the plan again this year, they may want to celebrate (by staying at home and doing nothing, of course)! Do they hate school under normal circumstances, and the idea of having to wear a mask and not leave the classroom all day makes it feel even worse? Or do they normally love school and the changes mean that a lot of the things they love about it might not be part of the experience this year? These kids may need a different approach.
- Ask how they feel and listen without discounting their feelings or offering a “bright side” right away. Presenting what is happening in a matter of fact way, and even with a bit of a positive spin can still work. But be prepared for the fact that they may be upset. Ask “How do you feel about all this?” (if they aren’t already telling you). Listen to what they’re saying without interrupting or judgement. Resist the urge to immediately correct them or argue the positive side if your child is not ready for that. You don’t have to make it all ok right at this moment. It’s ok to make guesses and ask questions, “Are you worried? Tell me what you’re worried about.” Let them know that it’s understandable they would feel that way. “I think a lot of people will probably feel weird about these changes.” You can also ask if they have any questions for you. If you don’t know the answers, don’t speculate – discuss how and when you might be able get that information.
- Be careful of “contagious” feelings. If your child normally has big emotions, you may need to be prepared for a big reaction (like yelling, crying, complaining, statements of refusal) that stirs up big emotions in you. If they’re angry, you may get angry too and snap at them to calm down or watch their tone. You may be alarmed at their distress and get flustered yourself. You may feel irritated that their reaction is making this even harder for you. If you notice that you’re “catching” their feelings, (and I know this is hard!) try to remain calm. Just because they are acting like it’s an emergency, doesn’t mean it’s an emergency – you don’t have to put out the fire right away. They are looking to you for how to handle these big feelings, but they don’t have your years of experience as an adult under their belt yet. Taking a deep breath, letting it out slowly, and saying something like this to yourself before responding may help: She’s having a hard time. She needs my help.
- Accept/normalize negative feelings, and then offer support. Your child’s world might feel weird and unsafe right now, and you are their anchor. They need to know their feelings are ok, that others (including you) may feel that way too, and that you will help them handle it. Offer a hug (if they want one) and repeat back what you are hearing from them: “I know you’re sad, this is going to be different for you. But different doesn’t have to be bad. I’ll help you however I can.” “I’m nervous too, it seems hard to wear a mask all day. Maybe we can practice at home and pretend we’re ninjas!” “I know you’re going to miss playing with your friends at school, I’d miss that too. Maybe your teacher can find ways to play games that still follow the safety rules, like Simon Says?” “You’re mad – I totally get it – I’m mad at this virus for messing stuff up too. It’s ok to feel like that, but we can help each other get through it. Maybe we’ll even find some ways to make it easier.”
- Realize that this is a grieving process. Some kids may not react immediately to the news or want to talk about their feelings. They may be in denial, just hoping things will change. They may start out feeling positive but get angry later. They feel very sad but then come to accept how things are. There’s no right or wrong way to grieve the loss of something as important as normalcy and social connection. So be prepared for multiple conversations and changes over time, even for your own feelings.
- Empathize with others. It’s very easy for kids (and us adults) to focus on how a situation affects us individually. It can help to move our focus from inside ourselves to the outside world and how we can help others. “I wonder how your cousins are handling the news. We should call and see how they are doing.” “Your teachers must be working really hard to get ready for all of this. I know they really care about your learning and keeping you safe. Maybe there’s a way we can help or show our appreciation?” “Your little sister seems sad about not being able to be with her friends. What can we do to help her feel better?” “I know it may be hard for some kids to get cool masks to wear. Maybe we can make some or support an organization that can?” “Maybe we connect with some of your friends and their families to see if we can work together and help each other out during the school year.” “I know this is all strange, but we’re doing it to keep ourselves and our friends and family safe. When you follow the rules, you’re showing that you care.”
- Reflect on your past experience and brainstorm ideas for improvement. If you and/or your child had trouble with the online learning environment the last few months, and you think you’ll be doing it again in the future, have a brainstorming session about things that went well and things that were hard. Come up with ideas (even silly ones!) that could help it go more smoothly if it needs to happen again.
- Embrace flexibility. Change is hard. We’ve had to roll with a lot of changes recently, and there’s no reason to believe that won’t be the case this next school year too. You can model being flexible by saying, “The way we usually do this might not work, so let’s think of other ways that could.” “I know you’re disappointed that you can’t order hot lunch this year. What kinds of things can we put in your lunch from home that would be good? Maybe we can use a thermos…” – My favorite mantra here is: If we can’t do this, what can we do?
Kids are resilient and creative – we may find that by helping them manage their feelings, we’re learning to manage our own. But I’ll leave that for another blog post. Best of luck, everyone – we’re all in this together!