HELPING OUR KIDS COPE WITH LOSS DURING CRISIS
Our children need assurance of our love, support, and protection. Much more so now. During this crisis, they have lost a lot. We can’t fix it for them nor can’t we protect them from the pain but we can help them build healthy coping skills.
“The best way out is always through.” – Robert Frost
I have two kids: Ava, 13, graduating from 8th grade and Gus, 15, a freshman in high school. They are both great kids but their behavior and energy levels have been really off lately. I mean, really off. So much that it’s been affecting me.
They’ve been fighting a lot, just want to be on their electronic devices, everything I say is wrong and a reason to argue, annoyed with everybody and at everything. It’s not all the time like that but when that happens, boy, their energy can be very strong.
The truth is, this behavior is totally normal right now. Our kids have been stripped of their normalcy and all the things they’ve been looking forward to: no more school, no friends, no activities, no freedom, no normal life.
When I asked my daughter, a few nights ago, what was going on, what was she feeling? She said: “This sucks, mom. It totally sucks. I don’t get to see or hang out with my friends. We don’t go to school. My dance performance got canceled. There will be no graduation. I don’t care much for the dance but the graduation, I was looking forward to walking the stage and getting that diploma, you know? I worked really hard all these years for that.” My heart sank. I wanted to fix it for her. I wanted to fix it for all graduates. I wanted to fix it for all of us.
Some may think this is not a big deal compared to what some folks are going through right now. True. But it is also true that these events are very important to our children as they represent rights of passage, marking their life’s journey. Even those kids who say they “don’t care”, these societal rituals tell them “Look at you, you are growing up. We are so proud of you!”
Without these events and things to look forward to, our kids are mourning the loss of a portion of their lives. Yes, they may feel gratitude for the health and all the good stuff they have, but they still feel sad and are grieving for their loss.
We can’t change this reality. We can’t fix it for them. So what can we do? We can teach our kids healthy strategies that will help them handle these unprecedented times, cope with their loss, and find ways to be healthy.
Today I share with you 5 strategies to help our children cultivate a healthy mind and healthy coping skills during these trying times.
5 strategies to help children cultivate healthy coping with loss and difficult times
1. Acknowledge their loss
Empathy is a powerful medicine! No matter where we live, what we have, and what we are going through, our kids have lost a lot this year. They have lost experiences. And they don’t have much to look forward to either.
My daughter is graduating from 8th grade this year. For her, and all seniors in the country, there will be no dance, no signing of the yearbook, no end of school trip, and no graduation ceremony. She’s a dancer and her semi-annual performance has also been canceled. Thousands of performances and events our children would be doing in Spring have been canceled. Loss.
My son had his first job lined up at our local marine mammal center, at this moment, that job is uncertain. He was also going to a soccer camp in Spain, which has also been canceled. Several events canceled for the summer. Loss.
What about the kids who need the school for supplies, food, safety, and connection? Canceled. Loss.
What about the kids who have had actual death in their families due to the coronavirus? Loss.
Loss is loss no matter what and it is painful.
So let’s acknowledge their loss, they are real and they are valid. Our children need that from us right now.
Don’t try to fix it. We can’t bring back what they lost. We can’t change the situation. But we can empathize. We can understand their sadness and grief. And we can be there for them.
Don’t compare their loss to others. Don’t discount their loss either. We are all different from one another, our needs and wants are different, and so is our pain. Our children’s loss is real to them, no matter what they are. Their loss may be different from person to person, but they are their loss nonetheless. Let’s make sure they know we understand that.
My kids’ teachers are wonderful! They have been regularly acknowledging their lost routine and events, and reaffirming how disturbing this “new normal” is, which makes my kids feel understood and supported.
2. Help them name their feelings
Our kids go through a roller coaster of emotions naturally as they grow. Teenagers feel their emotions even more intensely, which is normal and expected. And right now, as their world is uncertain, scary, and somewhat monotonous, you may notice their emotions becoming more intense. This too is normal, in circumstances such as this one we are living. Let’s help them control their intense emotions.
Help them name their feelings. As counter-intuitive as this may seem at first, naming our feelings can actually help us ease the pain. Labeling our feelings deactivates the limbic system (our emotional brain) and engages the prefrontal cortex (our rational brain) allowing us to slow down and think through how to best handle the situation.
Naming our feelings helps us slow down and think through how to best handle the situation.
Again, don’t try to fix or make them feel better. More often than not they just need us to listen, honestly, and fully. And that simple action in and of itself helps them process their emotions and ease the pain.
There are a lot of great resources online to help you and your kids expand your feelings vocabulary. The Moodmeter App is an app developed by scientists from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. I love this app, is super handy and easy to use.
I recently found this Atlas of Emotions, commissioned by the Dalai Lama and developed by an array of scientists. It’s a complete tool that helps us label our emotions, identify our triggers, become aware of the physical manifestations of the emotions, and choose a response according to the results we want to achieve. Genius!
Both of my kids’ teachers are constantly checking in on their emotional state during their zoom calls. They specifically ask them to label their emotions which I appreciate very much. When it’s done in a classroom environment like this, it helps normalize the situation, and it’s a great way for the kids to hear that they are not alone in this.
3. Help them stay present
We all have a natural tendency to distraction, but even more so now than ever before. As our physical movements have been curbed a bit, we are resorting to spending more time online or on screens which can add to mental stress and overload.
Being present, also called mindfulness, is simply put, being with what is, right now at the moment. Mindfulness helps us see things for what they are and accept them. Thus allowing us to just be, to feel more connected, less stressed, and in control of ourselves.
Our kids are thinking and fearing for their future right now, some are even talking worst-case scenarios. Instead of brushing it aside and saying “don’t worry, we will be ok” they will feel better if we listen to them, acknowledge the possibility of their fear becoming reality and bring them back to the present moment. Fearing something that hasn’t happened yet is not productive.
My son asked me if I think they will not go back to school in August. I said “I honestly don’t know. It will be sad if that happens, for sure. What I know and can control is what we are doing today, and that’s all I can do right now. We will cross that bridge when we get to it.” He agreed with me.
Staying present allows to feel calmer, more connected, and in control of ourselves.
One of my son’s teachers gives them a “house chore” as homework, at least 3 times a week. She explained that helping the parents around the house may make them feel a little bit more in control and connected (oh, how much do I love this teacher!!!) And she’s right! Research shows that helping others makes us feel better overall.
4. Help them understand that they are grieving
You may not have thought of it but we are all grieving right now. While it is true that thousands of families are grieving the actual death of loved ones, we are grieving the loss of our once known, regular life and things we expected to have and do.
Grief is not only related to death it also relates to any and every loss. Personal individual losses cause pain, let’s acknowledge and understand that. Labeling what our kids feel as grief gives them the power to validate what they feel and why. Making it understandable, helps them feel less anxiety over the situation.
Grief applies to any and every loss. Our children are grieving the loss of their experiences right now.
There are 5 stages of grief, but we don’t necessarily go through them in a linear way. However, it is empowering to know what they are and what to expect so that we can identify which stage we are in and how to best handle it. Here they are:
Denial: some kids may be denying the legitimacy of the threat of COVID-19, the danger of their exposure to it, and their ability to spread it. Some are living life as usual.
Anger: some kids may be angry right now because we are preventing them from seeing their friends or doing the things they like to do and did before. That may be creating anger misdirect: they might be taking it out on you and picking fights with their siblings. Do not take it personally. it’s not about you, really.
Bargaining: in an effort to avoid dealing with their reality and their feelings (fear and anxiety), some kids may start to bargain with us to let them see their friends. This behavior creates a false hope that everything is ok when they know it is not.
Depression: besides having to deal with their loss, they may be feeling lonely and isolated, no matter how much they text or snap. The lack of physical connection is affecting them. If they seem “slow” or sleepy, if they are spending more time alone in their rooms, they may be feeling a little depressed. It’s part of the grieving process.
Acceptance: in this stage, their emotions begin to stabilize. They accept the situation for what is and understand that this too shall pass. They start to feel calmer and more connected with you, as well.
Knowledge is power, and in this case, understanding what we are experiencing brings us calm in the midst of chaos and uncertainty. When we know what to expect we can go with the flow and wait with ease.
5. Model the behaviors you want them to display
Our kids are always looking at us for behavioral models and now more than ever. They are looking for clues that will make them feel safe, some sort of normal, and assured that we are here for them.
Seize the opportunity to have conversations with your children: serious ones, silly ones, simple ones. They are craving personal connection right now even if they say they don’t need nor want them. (I learned that with my son. He finally admitted it and we had an amazing conversation during a hike.)
Seize the opportunity to have conversations with your children: silly ones, serious ones, simple ones.
- Talk about your feelings and goals for now and the future. Then ask and talk about their feelings and goals, regularly.
- Create opportunities to do things together: chores, exercise, read, listen to music, dance, watch shows, movies, etc.
- Do the things they like to do together, even if you don’t care for them. This will create a very strong bond. (Playing Fortnite anyone?)
- Plan (near and far) future activities so that they have things to look forward to and feel excited again.
We can’t really change what we are going through. We can’t fix this for our children (believe me I tried) but we can help them navigate these times by showing our love, assuring that we are always here for them, making this time as safe as possible, and giving them the tools to help build their resilience and healthy coping mechanisms for their loss.
We are all in this together. We will come out of this stronger and more resilient. And we will flourish and thrive. Stay safe, stay healthy, stay home.
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Focusing on what matters most, let’s improve our communication and transform our interactions one conversation at a time.
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