Beyond Disappointment: Helping weather change in the time of COVID-19

Updated: May 8, 2020

For most young people the most challenging aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the loss of social time with friends and missing important experiences and events that they had been excitedly looking forward to. This has been especially problematic for young people with significant cognitive and developmental disabilities who may struggle to understand the “Whys” of this pandemic and who typically rely on structure and clear expectations to provide the sense of predictability and safety necessary to navigate their everyday lives and their world.

As adults we may understand our need to be “Safer at Home” in terms of how it helps our families and our communities. But these concepts can be difficult for our young people with cognitive and developmental disabilities to understand and to make sense of, when for many their worldview is much more focused on themselves, their friends and their families. Young people in general are struggling to accept that they may not see their friends and classmates in person again during this school year and are missing many of the end of year activities they have been anticipating all school year.

For those who are celebrating long awaited milestones such as graduation this is an especially challenging time. Many will be disappointed that they won’t be able to get together with friends to celebrate birthdays or other important events or may just miss everyday activities such as daily lunch with friends at school. It can be hard for young people whose world view is typically self-focused, to understand how missing the school dance, the awards ceremony, and even graduation could possibly benefit anyone else. It definitely doesn’t seem to be benefiting them.

Beyond feeling a sense of disappointment, some young people may experience feelings of grief exhibited via expressions of anger, sadness, or even heartbreak. It’s important to remember that everyone’s loss is significant, and each of us will experience our feelings differently.

How adults can provide support and encourage coping through times of disappointment and grief

Encourage Communication

The most important way to provide support for your teens or young adults, with or without developmental or cognitive disabilities is simply to ask how he or she is feeling about having to stay at home and to then listen to the answer. Truly listen. Put down your phone, turn off the TV and offer your undivided attention. The “better” you listen, the more your teen/young adult will communicate.

To better support communication with a teen/young adult who has challenges with receptive communication, i.e., taking in information or processing information, provide alternative ways to begin the conversation. Utilize a feelings chart (even a home made chart can be helpful!) and ask your teen/young adult to identify how they are feeling about having to stay at home. As he or she identifies specific feelings, ask what makes them feel that way. Ask what they miss the most and respect the answer, no matter how trivial it may seem to you. For young people who have difficulty with expressive language, i.e. being able to effectively communicate verbally, provide alternate ways to communicate thoughts and feelings. Again, a feelings chart can be a helpful start, but also provide opportunities to write or draw their responses. Photo albums, yearbooks and websites are also a great way for your young person to more effectively identify who or what they miss and how they are feeling. For teens and young adults, friendships are especially important – as they should be. The establishment of peer relationships is one of the essential developmental tasks of adolescence. Acknowledge that you understand that it’s frustrating for your teen/young adult to be away from friends. Don’t dismiss or minimize those feelings. Listen, empathize and communicate that you understand.

Don’t rush to problem solve, to rescue, or to try to make it all better

Don’t immediately rush to problem solve for your teen or young adult. Just listen attentively, without judgment and without immediately reassuring them that everything will be fine. And then communicate that you understand. We are experiencing all kinds of changes in our day-to-day lives and this in itself can be especially difficult for individuals with cognitive and developmental disabilities. Acknowledge their feelings and empathize with how difficult this is for them. Your acknowledgement and empathy communicates your understanding and acceptance of the sense of loss and disappointment your child is experiencing. Communicate using supportive language such as: “I understand that you’re disappointed.” “I’m so sorry that this is happening.” “It’s ok to feel what you’re feeling.” This is probably the most important thing you can communicate to someone who is feeling a sense of disappointment and loss. This acknowledgement allows your teen/young adult to feel seen and heard.

Once you have acknowledged and validated your teen/young adults feelings, don’t attempt to jump in and solve things for them, but instead work with them to begin to problem solve. It’s important to communicate that you believe he or she is capable of getting through this and moving forward. And solving problems for them communicates the opposite. Work together to identify things that might make things better. Keep in mind that ideas your teen/young adult generates themselves will likely be the ideas they will feel the most positive about. Try to find ways to make their ideas work. For example, if your teen/young adult wants to be able to talk to a best friend everyday, help them to identify several different ways to make that happen. Perhaps help to schedule online hangout times daily or several times per week, with a friend or several friends, to talk, play video games, listen to music together or to simply have lunch together. Work with your teen/young adult to identify ways to make the current situation less difficult or at least more tolerable. You may want to think about loosening rules about time spent on social media, for instance, in order to help support and increase opportunities for social time with peers. Encourage your teen/young adult to be creative about new ways to interact with their friends socially while physically distancing.

If missing family members is also a concern, encourage creative ways for your teen/young adult to connect and communicate with family members who don’t live with you. Scheduling a weekly check-in, sharing a weekly breakfast together, etc., will help to provide structure and predictability and enable them to keep connected with other family members.

One of the most challenging issues of this time for teens and young adults is missing many of the end of year activities they have been anticipating all school year. The end of the school year is not just the culmination of a years’ worth of hard work, but it’s typically the time of year when the most exciting things are happening. Many students look forward to these events throughout the school year. Events such as awards ceremonies, spring performance, proms and end of year dances, and other annual events such as Field Day or Water Day are anticipated events and often valued traditions. The loss of those traditions can be especially difficult for individuals with cognitive and developmental disabilities, who rely on the structure not just of their day, but of the school year, to provide the sense of predictability that is so important for their success. And for those who are celebrating long-awaited milestones such as graduation, this is an especially challenging time.

Unfortunately there’s no way to immediately make up for this level of disappointment. Of course, do continue to listen and validate feelings related to the sense of loss they may be feeling. But be careful not to make promises about the rescheduling of these important events until you have at least some information about when and how this will be happening. Don’t make things up or say things that aren’t true in order to try to help your teen/young adult to feel better. Honesty can be tough but it truly is the best policy, as you definitely don’t want to add to the already significant sense of disappointment and loss.

Moving past the sadness and sense of loss can be difficult for individuals who tend to get stuck and perseverate on things such as an unexpected change in plans or other disappointment. Continue to support open communication. Ask your teen/young adult what questions he or she may have and then let their questions guide further conversations. Answer questions as honestly as you can but be careful not to give more information than they’re looking for or can currently process. Be sure to correct any misinformation - sometimes the imagined is worse than the reality. As always, offer information from a developmentally appropriate perspective.

Be careful not to get stuck or join your teen/young adult in focusing only on what we can’t do during this time. Instead focus on what you can do. Work together to make a list of what you can do now that you are at home, that you couldn’t do before. List activities that you would like to do and can do given the current circumstances. Find new and creative ways to celebrate special events.

Take Care of You

It’s important to acknowledge your feelings of disappointment and loss as well – and to allow yourself to feel them. You, too, are experiencing the loss and disappointment related to missing anticipated events. Missing your child’s graduation or other highly anticipated end of school year events that you look forward to every year can be just as difficult for you as it is for your child. Don’t expect perfection, but do try to manage your own disappointment, worry, and sadness, especially in front of your children. That doesn’t mean you should hide your worry or sadness or pretend you’re not upset or disappointed. Instead, model your response in ways that can be helpful to your teen/young adult. Young people are looking to us, the adults in their lives, to figure out what’s going on. It’s okay for them to see our emotions, to see us sad, even to see us cry. It’s how we handle these strong emotions that will provide the model they need to get through this. What we need to be modeling is not how to avoid, but rather how to acknowledge and manage these strong emotions as they surface. Young people are watching and observing, our expressions, our body language, our words, the tone in our voices - taking it all in to understand how they should be reacting.

And try to give yourself a break – literally and figuratively. Rely on your sense of humor. Find the joy and comfort in the ordinary. As I’ve noted in a previous post, “stress and anxiety are contagious” – but luckily, so is calm. Find ways to spread calm!

Moving Forward

The suggestions noted here are aimed at supporting you and your family in avoiding feeling stuck in your disappointment and grief and instead in taking steps toward moving forward. One proactive way to help your family to move through feelings of sadness and disappointment is to shift your focus beyond your own experience to that of others. Focusing on what you can do to help others who also may be struggling is an effective way to move beyond your own pain and sense of loss.

Brainstorm with your family and identify things you can do to help someone else or to brighten someone’s day. You could support someone you know or someone who is a stranger, but think about ways to encourage or show support to others in your community. Involve your teen/young adult in identifying ways to help or do something special for someone else. That something special could be as simple as drawing a picture or sending a note or card to support or encourage a health care worker, first responder, or other essential worker, or chalking positive messages on the sidewalk or sweeping the walkway of an elderly neighbor. You can spend some family time baking cookies for a friend or family member who lives nearby and then leave a surprise package on their front doorknob. Connecting as a community can remind us all that we are all in this together and can help to create a sense of purpose while at home.

You may find that over time your teen/young adult still can’t move forward and remains stuck, continuing to perseverate on their disappointment, and on things that are beyond their control. Although it’s natural to look to new interventions or strategies for support in this unique situation, start with what’s familiar, by identifying the strengths that have served your child in the past and find ways to build on those strengths. Utilize the strategies that have been successful in the past in helping your teen/young adult to manage strong feelings and to begin to move past them. Review the list of “self-calming” strategies from my previous post on stress and anxiety. These interventions are used regularly at school and should be easy to incorporate into your tool box. Hopefully you’ve been practicing and are comfortably and successfully utilizing them.

To support moving forward for yourself and your family, try to avoid stressing too much about the future. Instead make an effort to focus on the present moment – for example, by being intentional about how you choose to spend this time with your family. Remind yourself to turn off the news and put down your phone as often as you can and to engage and relate to the people you care about most. Take advantage of any opportunity to try something new or different, to do something joyful and to create positive memories.

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