School and events are shutting down, impacting children in unexpected ways. Here’s how to deal with the letdown.

By Erinne Magee
March 18, 2020 • Taken from the New York Times

When I told my 10-year-old daughter that her elementary school would be shutting down for two weeks, she didn’t seem to mind. But after Lexi had time to process the news and realized a friend’s birthday party, a dance competition and the “Jump Rope for Heart” fund-raiser at school were also looped into the cancellation list, I was met with tears and a string of questions, both of which caught me off-guard.

With the new coronavirus leading to school closures and event cancellations across the country, parents are getting mixed reactions from their kids that range from joy over extra time off to confusion and sadness over missing a highly anticipated event — and even fear of the unknown.

Whether they’re forced to skip a musical performance, a tryout for a spring sport, a visit to their grandparents or a family vacation, simply telling children that disappointment is a part of life doesn’t cut it. In fact, breaking this news may also spark anxiety in parents.

So how can parents help kids process their disappointment? I asked a few experts for their advice.

First, check your own emotions.

“Fear can be contagious, so above all, parents need to monitor and manage their own worry, especially in front of their children,” said Robin F. Goodman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and art therapist in New York City. “The good news is this also means that calm is contagious.”

Regardless of a child’s age, honesty is the best approach, but Gayle Cicero, Ed.D., a clinical assistant professor at the Loyola University Maryland School of Education, advised not using phrases that kids simply don’t have the capacity to understand. “Terms like ‘the right thing to do’ or ‘think about the elderly’ or ‘for the greater good’ are hard to grasp when, developmentally, kids are in a stage when their worldview centers around them, their family, and perhaps their neighborhood and friends,” Dr. Cicero said.

When breaking the news of cancellations, parents should focus on validating their children’s emotions, whether that is disappointment or fear or something in between, said Dr. Neha Chaudhary, M.D., child and adolescent psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.

“Kids often gain comfort in knowing that they are not alone,” Dr. Chaudhary said. “It may help for parents to say that a lot of kids are feeling the same way and even admit that they are a little worried, too. At the end of the day, the most important thing that parents can do is to send their kid the message that it’s OK for them to feel what they are feeling. These are the interactions that help a child feel seen.”

Naming your child’s emotion (for example, saying, “That must be so disappointing”) helps them begin to realize what they are feeling, said Leighanne Scheuermann, an educator based in Dallas. “In the long term, your child is more likely to remember how you respond to their emotions and also will recognize the efforts you made to make the situation better for them,” Scheuermann said.

Disappointment can be linked to a feeling of loss of control in children, said Roseann Capanna-Hodge, Ed.D., a psychologist and pediatric mental health specialist psychologist in Connecticut. “When you have to talk about canceled events that kids were looking forward to, think about it as a learning opportunity to manage disappointment,” Dr. Capanna-Hodge said. “We often are so worried that our kids will get upset when we should be thinking: ‘What can my child learn here? Can they learn about managing stress and feeling upset?’”

When Rachel Engel’s 8-year-old daughter, Sydney, found out that her dad, currently mid-tour in South Korea with the Air Force, had to cancel his trip home to Kansas last week, she was confused. The family had been building a chain out of colorful construction paper to count down the days until his visit, and Sydney threw the remaining links into the trash after hearing her dad wouldn’t be coming home. Engel noted after they talked through her daughter’s disappointment, Sydney felt better and went to her dance class later that day.

It helps just to be a listening ear so your child can freely vent her frustration. Of course, as parents, there is an urge to swoop in and wipe out disappointment. But, Dr. Cicero said, parents can actually get in the way of a child’s development when they do this. “Plus, there’s something so therapeutic about a person willing to hear you out and just be with you,” she added.

When a child’s emotions are really starting to disrupt his usual disposition or he seems stuck in a funk, it’s probably time for some direction from you.

A fun technique to distract younger kids, said Alexandra Friedmann Finkel, L.C.S.W., a licensed clinical social worker and therapist in New York, is a color game. Have your child choose a color and look around the room to point out everything he can see in that color. “This can help a child break the worry spiral and calm the body and mind,” Finkel said.

Once your child is in a good place emotionally, don’t make any promises about rescheduling events or making up for lost time, Dr. Goodman said. Instead, she advised focusing on what you can do now for enjoyment or to support your community.

For example, rather than the planned movie party with friends that Suzanne Cope’s son, Rocco, of New York, was looking forward to, they improvised and celebrated his seventh birthday at a park by flying kites and riding bikes with one other family.

If your child is upset about missing the chance to star in a play, ask if she wants to put on a play with stuffed animals, Scheuermann suggested. Can you FaceTime Grandma for her birthday or support a local business by having a cake sent to her? If a vacation has been canceled, have the kids create a poster board of activities they wanted to do on that trip. Essentially, find a way to modify the missed activity so it can be creatively executed at home.

In tackling school closures, a routine is crucial, whether the teachers sent home a lesson plan or not. “Just by putting a routine in place can help alleviate stress for children and their parents,” Dr. Capanna-Hodge said. “Create a homeschooling schedule and go over it every morning with your children and teens. Make sure to have consistency in your day-to-day and incorporate breaks, exercise and snack time.” Keep a physical copy of the schedule your child can look at, too.

Since research shows that those with a positive outlook can manage stress better and actually live longer, this is a time to help foster resilience in children, Dr. Capanna-Hodge said. “While some kids have a glass-half-full outlook naturally, others need to develop that over time, and these kinds of disappointments are great opportunities to do that.”

Erinne Magee is a Maine-based journalist. Follow her on Twitter.