COVID-19: Coaching our kids through disappointment

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A couple of weeks ago, in the midst of their pandemic summer boredom, my kids asked if they could dig a hole in the front yard. Did we need a hole? No, we did not. Did I let them dig a hole just to give them something to do? I sure did.

All four of them, ages 11-15, set out with shovels. It became a hilarious group project for the better part of a week. When they felt like they’d dug down far enough, they set up lawn chairs in the hole. Of my four kids, two are athletes and two are theatre kids. All four have had their respective activities cancelled for the foreseeable future. We are most likely looking at another year of distance learning while I work from home — or try and fail at working from home while supervising school. It sucks. It’s frustrating. It’s mind-numbingly exhausting. We are all disappointed. This is going to ruin their mental health, I think to myself.

But will it? I’m finding that it’s important to distinguish between things that are disappointing and things that will actually negatively impact my kids’ mental health. As a therapist, I know that a lot of that hinges on the narratives I model for my kids.

We are a long way from comprehending how the pandemic is impacting our mental health, but most of us are experiencing increased anxiety, anger and exhaustion. There is a heavy burden of grief that many of us don’t even know how to name. We’ve lost our habits, our gatherings, our corporate gatherings for theatre and sports. It feels like we’ve lost a little of our humanity as well as our community.

Not all kids are in a mental health crisis

In the midst of these losses, I’m struggling with that temptation to feel fatalistic, to fall into narratives that play through my mind like: “Everything is ruined” and “My kids are going to be traumatised.” Where we go from here, and what meaning I help them extrapolate, is just as important.

I’ve reminded myself over and over this month that there are thousands of kids who don’t play any sports and they are not all in a mental health crisis. Likewise, there are thousands of kids who have been homeschooled for years who have managed to stay mentally healthy.

We can give our kids one of two perspectives. That of victimhood: that they’ve lost things they’re entitled to, that they should remain outraged, and that they will be forever scarred by their current losses. We need to acknowledge and work through their real feelings, and give them permission to feel fear, doubt, rage and sadness, just as we do.

For now, in all this crazy uncertainty, let’s opt into being as gentle as we can with ourselves and with those we love.

But beyond that, we also need to give our kids hope. We need to help them see this as a temporary season, to give them some sense that their world, while being profoundly changed, will not be forever marred. In a society steeped in privilege, we’ve been taught to run from suffering at all costs. But if we’ve lived long enough, we also know that suffering and disappointment are inevitable.

In my own life, I’ve experienced great losses, and I have learnt that challenge and adversity can be a catalyst for resilience. It doesn’t mean that I don’t still grieve those losses, but I can see how the periods of life where things did not go as I expected, even in devastating ways, taught me to be more flexible, to let go of trying to control outcomes, and to learn to brush myself off and find a new plan when mine wasn’t panning out.

We now have the opportunity to coach our children through a season of disappointment. And while it’s decidedly difficult, it’s also an incredible opportunity while they’re still in our care to teach them how to weather the future storms that life will bring.

Discovering children’s own learning skills

We may choose to opt out of rigid expectations for grades and opt in to discovering our children’s own learning skills.

We may choose to opt out of our pre-pandemic goals and opt into new ones that better match our resources — mentally, spiritually, emotionally and financially — and the world in which we find ourselves.

For now, in all this crazy uncertainty, let’s opt into being as gentle as we can with ourselves and with those we love. Mental health is important. But it does not need to hinge on the disappointments and losses of this season. Instead, it can hinge on how we help our loved ones process those disappointments, and then pivot to helping them get their needs met in new and creative ways.

That may look like digging what seems to be a pointless hole in your front yard, but in fact becomes a place for community and togetherness.

— Kristen Howerton is an author, family therapist and the mother of four.

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