Helping Kids Do Battle with Pandemic Disappointment

How well are you, as a parent, responding to the disappointment the pandemic keeps doling out to your kids? Are you able to help them deal with life’s lemons? Or are you diving into the pity-party with them?  Saying “no” to the fun things children have grown to expect, even though many activities have been put on hold, can be really difficult. They don’t understand. Plus, missing out on birthday parties at Pistol Pete’s, Saturday soccer games, and dance recitals is disappointing for parents, too. While the majority of households had children moved to online learning last fall, where they usually have contact with a teacher (, kids continue to miss out on valuable relationships with friends and family. And that can be very disappointing.


No one wants to be in charge of delivering bad news. Let’s just say it’s something parents signed up for when they had kids in the first place. Yet it’s important to know that how well adults deal with stress and adversity can impact how well their offspring handle it in the future, when everything most assuredly won’t go their way.


The ability to deal with stress begins in infancy. As babies do not have the ability to calm themselves, they rely on parents and caregivers to respond lovingly to their immediate needs for food, holding, smiles and love. The development of the stress-response system is based on these early interactions.


When my four children were at home, helping them deal with disappointment (considered manageable stress) meant not abandoning them to their grief or being dismissive about it, but just letting them be sad. Being dismissive means saying things like, “Get over it.” Or, “Don’t give me those crocodile tears.” That’s not the way to go.  The key to helping kids work through their grief is showing empathy: gently helping them to identify their feelings and being compassionate. You might say, “You’re disappointed that we couldn’t go to the zoo, and you’re sad about it.”


I always felt sad inside when my kids were sad. I couldn’t help it. As a result, I sometimes tried to fix things for them. In time, however, I found they were better at fixing their own problems: best-friend crises, finding items they’d lost (sometimes). And handling disappointment. I discovered it didn’t kill them.  It’s easy to see why parents would choose alternative celebrations during coronavirus: standing at a distance and wearing a mask isn’t easy to enforce with young ones. They just don’t get the fine print.  That’s because young children operate more on emotion than rational thought. It’s hard for them to grasp that someone who visited Aunt Mary yesterday could be contagious and not have known it. Or that cousins visiting Grandma and Grandpa from out-of-state could have been exposed on their flight. It happens all the time. It’s how the virus spreads.


What matters is that parents act sensibly, but also show empathy for their children’s disappointment. It’s not necessary to make it up to them all the time. But it might help to act as a buffer when possible. For example, you might say, “I can tell you’re disappointed, but we really can’t visit Grandpa yet. How about we play a game of Monopoly (or whatever) this afternoon?”


I would be willing to bet that in the post-pandemic years, young adults who experienced the COVID-19 pandemic as children will be more resilient than those who did not. Someone really needs to do a study. But scientists will also have to study their parents’ attitudes. The child whose parents spent the pandemic griping about Dr. Fauci’s prevention protocols and blaming the Chinese might not grow up more resilient. They might, however, grow up to be a Republican. FFG

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