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Handling Your Child's Disappointment Over Cancelled Events

How to support yourself and children through this time of grief.

iStock/Used with Permission
Source: iStock/Used with Permission

"Dear Dr. Laura,

"How can families cope with their kids' disappointment about canceled family vacation spring break plans? I know you recommend family meetings. What do you think of family brainstorming sessions to come up with spring break family vacation ideas for 2021 and also alternative ideas of what to do now in quarantine?"

—Mariko

Research shows that we all need something to look forward to, so I'm all for families talking about how to make their time in quarantine more meaningful. More on that in a moment.

I'm even intrigued by the idea of brainstorming about future family vacations. But I can't imagine that that would be very fulfilling for kids because it's so far off, and all of us will be living by then in a very changed world. Most parents are just worried sick right now about imminent health dangers, and more concretely about paying the bills in the face of this huge economic downturn. I'm not sure they want to be promising their kids Disneyland or anything else the kids can brainstorm up, even a year from now.

Behind this question, I hear the powerlessness we adults feel in the face of all the disappointment young people are feeling right now. It isn't just losing a vacation. Everything from recitals to playoffs to graduations are canceled.

So while adults are reeling from the unprecedented changes, this is also a very hard time for many children and teenagers. Naturally, parents wish they could make their kids' unhappiness go away by promising them something wonderful next year.

But the truth is that the only way to get through disappointment is the way we get through any other kind of loss: We grieve.

So when our children are disappointed, I encourage parents to support their children to grieve all the losses of this moment, whether that's something huge like a disrupted graduation, or something "small" like not being able to see their friends and crushes, or even something hard to articulate, like not being able to age-appropriately spend more independent time away from their parents.

Many parents struggle with supporting their children through grief because there's nothing we can do to make things better. Remember that you don't have to have answers. You just have to show up and listen and acknowledge the loss.

As you've probably heard, the stages of grief include denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and finally acceptance. These stages don't necessarily proceed in this orderly fashion, though. We slide back and forth between the stages as we gradually make our way to acceptance. But if you accept the full range of your child's emotions, including the anger — your child will eventually get to acceptance.

When it feels appropriate — don't rush it — you might also share with your child these additional time-honored ways of supporting ourselves through grief.

  • Connection. We find meaning in what matters most — connection to our deeper selves, to our loved ones, to nature and the divine—- even to strangers.
  • Activity. Learning new things, making art, growing a garden, cooking, cleaning, creating order in our lives. We find meaning when we engage in the ongoing activities of life, despite our loss.
  • Service. We begin to see our loss, no matter how great, in the larger context of life, including the lives and losses of others.
  • Going deeper. We can all access deeper wisdom and compassion if we bypass the mind and listen to the heart. There are so many ways to do this, with meditation, yoga, and mindfulness practices, including, simply, journaling and gratitude practices.

And that brings us back full-circle to Mariko's idea of families brainstorming about how to make their time in quarantine more meaningful.

Yes! There is more than enough grief to go around in the face of a pandemic. Why not find ways as a family to be of service at this time, even from the safety of our homes? Why not find new ways to connect with each other at home, and with others virtually? Why not learn something new, make art, nurture each other and create beauty? Why not use this opportunity to develop more friendliness to ourselves and others with meditation, to learn to manage our thoughts and fears, to access our deepest wisdom, to show up as the best we can be at this hard time? Why not use our disappointments to enrich the present moment?

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