Big Reactions To Cancellations

Big Reactions To Cancellations

The world is, collectively, going through a very unusual time right now. People all over the world are trying to avoid exposure to a virus that we still don’t understand completely. Schools and offices are closing, social gatherings are being cancelled, and everyone is being asked to work or stay at home.

Along with all of these disruptions come lots of feelings: fear for the safety of yourself and your loved ones; uncertainty about the future—how long it will last, how bad it might get; stress from lots of sudden, often rough transitions; and another emotion you might not fully recognize in your child and yourself—grief.

Whether you are voluntarily self-isolating or living in an area that has government-mandated orders to shelter in place, most people are grappling right now with some form of loss. One thing that’s been lost is plans for the future—anything from brunch with friends to a graduation ceremony a student has worked toward all their life have been postponed, or even cancelled completely.

This is hard to deal with! Disappointment at its finest. Also lost may be a sense of security, a routine, and the ability to visit with friends and family in person. I’m sure your child (and you!) can think of more things that you have lost.

The natural reaction to loss is grief.

You may think of grief as an emotion that only comes as a result of a death, or perhaps the end of a serious relationship, like divorce. However, grief is actually, simply, the pain that accompanies loss. So any of the sorrow or disappointment or uncertainty about the future that you and your child may be feeling can be a part of an experience of grief.

With this in mind, it may be helpful to remember that your child’s behaviors in these times could be grieving behaviors. You may be familiar with the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, despair, acceptance. All of those stages are designed to help your child meet their needs (experience, connection, power) and adapt to a reality they didn’t want. You may also be aware that those stages don’t necessarily happen in any particular order, and that they can repeat themselves.

Armed with this knowledge, it will be easier to understand when your child displays an unexpected reaction to being told that a planned event has been cancelled or that they STILL can’t go see their friends or family. Rather than regression or immaturity, your child is simply having a natural experience of grief: failing to understand that they cannot see anyone who doesn’t live in your home (denial); feeling angry when you remind them of this reality (anger); testing boundaries to see if they can maybe still visit that one friend (bargaining); or even acting moody and finding it hard to appreciate any silver linings (despair).


So, what can you do to help your child through their grief and towards the final stage of acceptance? SAY WHAT YOU SEE.

For example, if your child was really looking forward to an end-of-school-year party, you can SAY WHAT YOU SEE the child saying, thinking, or feeling:

SWYS: “You are really sad that the party was cancelled. You’ve been looking forward to it since we got the invitation!”


Child: “They’re being mean! They didn’t have to cancel it. We can all wash our hands.”


SWYS: “You wish they hadn’t cancelled it! You know that they did that to keep everyone healthy, so you’re thinking of ways that it could still happen and keep people safe. You were really excited about it!”


BOUNDARY: “And unfortunately, the only way to make sure everyone stays safe and healthy is to stay home.”


Child: “That’s stupid!”


SWYS: “You really hate it!”


CAN DO: “Must be something you can do to let out all your anger, frustration, and disappointment. Hmm, it’ll need to be something really big to handle all that!”

You can’t fix it. 

An extra challenge for you in facilitating your child’s expressions of disappointment is the fact that right now there is probably nothing you can do to “make up for it.” You can’t host a substitute party or let your child play with a select few friends. Many of the usual CAN DOs are unavailable right now! It can be really hard to help your child work through disappointment when you feel like you have no way to make it better (and even harder when you’re sad about the loss, too).

Fortunately, kids don’t need you to make it better for them. Instead, you can act as their life coach and help them learn how to work through disappointment on their own.

Grant their wishes in fantasy.

One way to scaffold their ability to cope with grief is to grant their wishes in fantasy. It sounds counter-intuitive—spending time thinking about something you can’t have seems sure to result in distress. But research shows that even when you can’t have something you want, savoring the wonderful experience it would’ve brought can help you move on.

When you explore the details of children’s wishes with them—what things they were excited about, what plans they had, what friends they were going to see, etc., they really get that you understand. The more you understand, the less they need to make their point—no need to prove means no escalation.

It could sound like this:

SWYS: “You were really excited about that end-of-year party! It was going to be a fun way to celebrate with your friends after working hard all year.”


Child: “Yeah, we were gonna play games. Now I won’t see any of them again until next year!”


SWYS: “Next year is a long way away! You love playing games with your friends. Sounds like you were going to play some games you like.”


Child: “We were going to do a race. I was practicing.”


SWYS: “You were practicing for the race! You might even have won. That would feel so good. You like to win.”


Child: “Yeah, and then after the games there would be cake.”


SWYS: “You love cake! You probably know the flavor.”


Child: “Probably vanilla. But I wish it were chocolate.”


SWYS: “Chocolate is your favorite. You would love it if you got to see your friends, run in that race, and then eat chocolate cake. That would be such a fun party! A great way to say goodbye to your friends.”


Child: “Yeah…maybe I will be able to see them this summer. And then we could…”

When a child’s wants are validated, they feel heard, understood, and know that you care about what’s important to them. Often this kind of validation is enough to help kids inch toward adapting in the now and look for new possibilities in the future, like imagining a time this summer when they can see their friends again. In addition to helping them handle disappointment, envisioning their wishes coming true in the future can help them wait.

Validate yourself, too.

Your child is likely not the only one experiencing grief right now. Luckily, you can use this same approach with yourself—validating your experience of loss and granting your own wishes in fantasy. Just make sure to use 2nd person pronouns, so that it feels like an external validation of your feelings. For example, try saying this out loud to yourself:

SWYS for YOU: “You are really struggling to get things done with the whole family at home all day, every day! You miss your usual routine. You wish it could go back to normal, so that you could have your life back. You don’t like having everything up in the air! You just want to know when it will be over.”

If you nodded, it’s a sign that you are grieving as well. So this is your cue to give yourself, and your children, some extra compassion as you all work through your multi-faceted grief during this incredibly unusual and unpredictable time. You can validate each others’ wants and help grant each others’ wishes in fantasy. Maybe you can even make the chocolate cake part come true now. 😉

You can find out more about our simple 3-part coaching approach in our book, SAY WHAT YOU SEE® for Parents and Teachers. You can buy it here, or if you just can’t wait, you can read it online here for free!

Or if videos are more your speed, you can check out our online Basic Coaching Skills Course, which is full of clips that you can watch on your own time to learn how to step from controlling to coaching your child and gain more hugs, more respect, and more cooperation as a result.

You can find more tips to make working/staying at home easier with kids here:

4 Tips To Help Kids Wait 

Success Training—Helping Littles Wait


  1. Sandra |

    Thank you once again for great information that you make very easy to use!

  2. Sandra,

    Great to hear from you again! Betsy wrote this in 2020 knowing parents would need some pretty specific info to get through all of the lock-downs. Glad you found it easy to use.

  3. Judy |

    This is just remarkable, & so valuable for teachers & child care providers as well. Thank you for providing this information. I have a feeling it will come in very handy.

  4. Judy,

    Thanks so much for taking the time to comment!

    Remarkable is a great word for the new perspectives Language of Listening® provides and the results it produces. If you apply Betsy’s suggestions and see remarkable results of your own, please feel free to share them with us here.

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