Back-to-school season is usually an exciting time for students full of anticipation for exciting events like school dances, sports tryouts, and homecoming celebrations. But in this unprecedented climate of social distancing for health and well-being, it now means cancellations and frustrations. So, what can parents do to help teens deal with their disappointment? How can they turn these situations into learning experiences?
Work Through Your Reaction First
Before addressing the issue with them, first, work to acknowledge and release your own emotions. Maybe you are sad about missing out on the opportunity to chaperone your teen’s school dance. Perhaps your child is the first in your family to go to college, and you had envisioned this as one of the proudest moments in your life. Or you’re frustrated your teen no longer has the opportunity to play in the big game and carry on an athletic tradition. Whatever you’re feeling, it’s important to bring yourself to a place of calm and understanding before talking with your teens. Young peoples’ brains are developing rapidly, particularly the emotional centers. This can lead to them being more sensitive to other’s reactions. So, if you react with disappointment, they may feel doubly so – for themselves and you. They may even think that they’ve somehow let you down. Don’t let your emotions impact theirs.
Encourage Teens to Release Emotions
It’s a natural tendency to want to protect children from things that would make them feel bad. But it’s important not to try to spin the situation into something it’s not. That doesn’t keep them from becoming emotional and instead makes them not trust you. Instead, tell them the truth and let them express their emotions without being made to feel like their loss is no big deal. Let them know releasing emotions helps in being able to cope with life’s challenges. For ideas on how teens can release emotions in healthy ways, check out “Support Teens to Release Emotions.”
Let go of Assumptions, Listen, and Ask Questions
*Billie is a high school senior in Evesham, New Jersey. Like scores of high school seniors around the country, last Spring she learned that because her school has gone online, there would be no senior prom. It was an event she’d been looking forward to attending with friends, but now the opportunity was cancelled. Her father, Henry reminded her, “There’s no one at fault here. You’ll find a way to do something special as seniors. It just may not be the same thing that everyone else does.”
Too often, parents think they know what’s best for their teens. They may assume they understand what’s bothering them. But instead of making assumptions, take a step back and listen. You may be surprised to discover that the source of their concern is not what you initially thought. Everyone responds to disappointment and loss differently. Some teens may feel stressed but not be able to express their feelings clearly. Ask questions and listen to the answers. Be a sounding board. Ask them if they want your advice and work to come to a resolution together.
Henry asked his daughter if she had ideas about a different way to celebrate her senior experience. She said she wanted to have a chance to get dressed up and go out with friends. She then concluded that she’d talk with her friends about having a chance to do so later in the year and use it as an opportunity for a “prom and a reunion” at the same time.
Re-Frame Your Perspective on Disappointment
12-year-old *Jill prepared for her Bat Mitzvah reading and ceremony for more than a year. In recent weeks, carrying out this Jewish coming-of-age ritual changed from an event that would have included many family members and friends, to one in which only her immediate family and a rabbi would witness in-person. Family and friends could only watch online. Her father, Jonathon, said that they had to quickly “move from disappointment to embracing the reality that the celebration and party weren’t going to happen” – at least not in the way they’d planned.
Instead of only seeing a mountain of disappointment, try viewing these experiences as steps on your adolescent’s journey to building long-term resilience. You might say something like, “I understand that right now you’re feeling bad. What can we learn from this situation?” Show your teens the strengths and abilities they have to get past this obstacle. It’s important to emphasize that events can be rescheduled. For those that can’t, ask your kids how they might mark the occasion differently. Help them understand that while the event set to mark their rite of passage might be postponed or even canceled, they are growing nonetheless and have earned their achievements. You are celebrating their accomplishments and what marks their growth with or without the event that was planned. The party might not be there, but the opportunity to focus on the meaning may be stronger than ever.
In Jill’s case, once her parents acknowledged their disappointment, they re-framed the situation for their daughter, explaining she was part of a significant life event taking place. It was an opportunity for her to embrace a new role in her community. “She had looked forward to it as a celebration of her accomplishments. Being asked to do that in an isolated way was hard,” her dad said. But while she was sad, their revised attitude helped her accept the change. Some of the prayers and passages took on new meanings as she applied them to world events.
Connect With Others in New Ways
Cassie, a senior at Muhlenberg College and an intern at the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, got the news that her undergraduate college career would end virtually. It left her feeling like she missed out on a vital part of her college experience. “It was something that I’d been working towards – the reward for getting through these years is the spring celebrations, the graduation, and being with the people I’ve come to love during my college career. And I lost that,” she says. Her friends from college are spread out now, but trying to stay in touch.
Parents can encourage their children to connect with others who are going through the same experience to collectively come up with alternative solutions to issues. The ability to deal with these disappointments now and to learn how to bounce back will prepare them to better manage the many challenges they will face in adulthood.
Together, Cassie and her friends play games online, such as Jackbox, and spend time sharing on social media. Some days she says she feels lost and confused as if she is grieving, even though she logically understands why things have changed. She’s among the approximately 3.9-million students that graduated from college in 2020, most of whom did so remotely. And it’s possible the graduates of 2021 will be faced with a similar situation. Cassie says she feels lucky to have adults in her life – parents and teachers — trying to help.
Tell Your Children You Love Them … Unconditionally
Unfortunately, disappointment, loss, and failure are all part of life. But how your child recovers from setbacks is what matters in the long run. A parent’s love towards their teen is a powerful, protective force that will help them handle life when it gets tough. Be sure your children know your love towards them isn’t the result of grades on a report card, a diploma in hand, or a trophy on a shelf. Tell your teens you believe in them. Explain that if they make an effort and work hard, they can overcome life’s setbacks, go on to achieve their goals, and become stronger as a result.
While it’s true, your teens will miss being with friends and loved ones during some meaningful moments, the hope is that your children come to learn it’s more important to see them healthy in the years to come.
*Names have been changed to maintain privacy