How to Talk to Your Kids about Canceled Summer Plans
As Jewish summer camps and other cherished summer programs announce that they will not open during summer 2020 due to COVID-19 risks, parents are left to share the news with their children, many of whom are sure to be heartbroken.
Supporting young children during this difficult time begins with understanding that everyone’s needs are different. Factors like age-specific maturity and whether or not they have been to camp before will affect how each child receives the news and can guide the way you tell them and comfort them.
This resource can guide you and your family in ongoing discussions with children during the COVID-19 pandemic. It offers specific language you can use when responding to children about the heartbreaking news that they will not be able to attend camp or other planned programming this summer.
Parenting Roles Based on Your Child’s Age
For children of all ages, the greatest gift we can give as parents is to listen to them and provide validation. Resist the urge to “fix” the situation or problem-solve for them, as it will leave children feeling unsupported and fear that you do not think they can manage things on their own.
When they’re uncomfortable or upset, kids need empathy more than anything else. Showing them that you feel for them and providing assurance that you will help them through this challenging time will often be all they need to get through times of uncertainty.
- For elementary school-aged children, be the director: You need a plan of what to say and how to say it. Anticipate what questions your children might have and what responses you might give.
- For middle school-aged children, be the tour guide: You need to lead but can also change course, depending on your child’s response and tolerance for the conversation.
- For high school-aged children, be the torch-passer: More is less with this age, so share the information and then pass the torch to your children to let them lead the conversation while you listen.
Let’s further break down each of these roles and needs.
How to Talk to Elementary School-Aged Children
Kids of this age need information shared with them with few words that are direct and to the point. Every time you have a conversation with your child about a difficult topic, you are helping your child to grow and learn, and with children of this age, parents need to be in charge and direct the conversation.
It is helpful to remember that words are not always an elementary-aged child’s best friend, and children of this age cannot always express how they are feeling. Keep in mind that behavior is communication, and often, you can determine how a child is tolerating the information you’ve shared by watching their behavior both during and afterward – and then asking them about it without judgment. You might say:
- “I notice you are stomping your feet a lot, and that isn’t like you.”
- “I see your eyes are tearing up, and I wonder if that means you are sad?”
The tone of your questions helps to assure your child that they are safe to share their feelings. It is fine to help your child label their feelings, if you feel confident that you are labeling those feelings correctly.
Be sure that once your child begins talking, you stop talking, giving them the opportunity to share what’s on their mind. Feel proud of yourself that you got your child to express their feelings!
Here are some things you might say to elementary school-age children who were planning to return to camp this summer or participate in other programs they've done in the past. We've left blank spaces where you would personalize your language to your family's experiences and plans:
- “It’s hard when you don’t get to do what you thought you’d be doing.”
- “I’m so sorry that you won’t get to experience _____ because I know you love it.”
- “I know you will miss _____, and I am always here to talk with you about it.”
- “We will work together to fill your time this summer with activities that make you happy.”
- “I know you’re sad, and I’ll do everything I can to help you to feel better.”
- “It’s normal to feel sad about this; I am sad for you, too.”
- "Everybody at _____ cares so much about everyone being safe and healthy, and this summer it will be too difficult to keep everyone safe.”
- “We will keep talking about _____ because it’s so important to us and so we don’t forget all the wonderful things about it.”
- “_____ is such a special place, and everyone is so disappointed because so many people love it and will miss it.”
- “I know it doesn’t feel good, but I also know that there will be a time when you feel better.”
- “It’s hard to imagine that this feeling will pass, and I hope you are OK.”
- “This is such a loss, and I’m so sorry.”
- “Sometimes when things are hard, it’s okay to give yourself permission to not think about it for a little bit. How about we don’t think about _____ not happening again until after dinner…?”
Here are some things you might say to elementary-aged children who would've been attending summer camp or other programs for the first time:
- “I’m so sorry this won’t be the summer you get to experience _____.”
- “I can’t imagine how you're feeling, but I know you’re good at explaining it.”
- “I do hope that you’ll be as excited in the future to try something new as you were about _____ for this summer.”
- “We’re going to work together to come up with fun things for you to do this summer.”
How to Talk to Middle School-Aged Children
Teens and tweens need for information to be conveyed to them in an honest and frank manner. By allowing yourself to have a difficult conversation with your child, you are strengthening your relationship with them, as well as their ability to work through conflict and challenge.
The conversation should be collaborative, with you sharing the information and then following the lead of your teen. Teens may be interested in talking about the situation all at once or may need time to process and then revisit.
Remember that behavior is communication, and often you can tell how your teen is tolerating the information you are sharing by watching their behavior both during and after the conversation. It’s important to remember, too, that teens often need time and space in order to fully engage in a conversation after receiving difficult information.
At this age, peer relationships are also very important, and your teens may want to talk with their friends before they talk with you. You can help support their camp/program friendships – in the time they need them most – by suggesting they connect with their friends to talk about the situation.
Some statements that might be helpful are:
- “Hey, I see that you’re really sad right now. I know you may not want to talk about it, but I’m here for you when and if you do want to talk.”
- “I know you may want to talk with your friends first, but let me know if you want to chat with me about _____ later.”
The tone of your question can help assure your teen that they are safe to share their feelings. Acknowledge that this is a grieving process for your teen and validate the emotions that they are experiencing. It may be helpful to avoid using words like “I understand” and instead use statements such as “I can imagine…” or “It sounds like…”.
Here are some things you might say to middle and high school-aged children:
- “I know how much you were looking forward to returning to _____. Are there things we can do at home that will be helpful to you during this time?” (Note: It may be helpful to ask your teen what their favorite camp/program activities are and ways in which these might be able to be recreated virtually.)
- “_____'s biggest concern is always your health and safety, and in this time, they're not able to provide that same safe environment they they would normally because of COVID-19.”
- “It is so normal to be upset and experience a lot of emotions around this news. I’m here to talk about it anytime you need.”
- “_____ has been doing a lot of virtual programming in the last several months; I bet they are going to come up with all kinds of ways for you to stay connected to your friends this summer. I know this won’t be the same for you, but maybe there will be some new types of activities for you to experience.”
- “There will be opportunities for you to talk with and hear directly from the _____'s directors about this decision and plans for moving forward.” (Note: If your child has specific questions for camp/program leadership, it might be helpful to have them write these down.)
Additional Helpful Resources
- Supporting Families During COVID-19: The Child Mind Institute shares supportive and comprehensive resources for parents on a number of coronavirus-related topics.
- Judaism Under Quarantine: ReformJudaism.org shares ideas for experimenting with and embracing your Judaism from home during these times of physical distancing.
- COVID-19 Resource Guide: The Jed Foundation shares resources for dealing with sudden changes to their regular schedules and feelings of uncertainty and anxiety, and even loss and grief, as a result of COVID-19.
- How to Talk to Your Kids About Bad Things Happening in the World: These tips can help parents speak from a place of our Jewish values in a way that children will understand.
- Parenting in a Pandemic: Tips to Keep the Calm at Home: These tips from the American Academy are designed to help families through the current crisis.
- How to Be Your Best Self in Times of Crisis: Psychologist Susan David shares wisdom on how to build resilience, courage, and joy in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
- Emotional Regulation Worksheets: A Coping Skill Activity: This worksheet and calming technique can help you focus on the present rather than overthinking about the past or future.
- 51 Mindfulness Activities for Kids: These tips and activities can teach elementary-aged students how to practice mindfulness.
See the Union for Reform Judaism's Camp and Youth Virtual Programming Calendar, updated regularly, to find opportunities to participate in virtual programming focused on creative arts, science and technology, sports, Jewish learning and worship, and more.
The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Briut Team ("health" in Hebrew) is a group of both year-round and seasonal camp professionals who’ve been working since last spring to develop a contemporary approach towards mental, emotional, and social health (MESH) that provides robust support of the whole participant and staff member to ensure their success in URJ Youth programs and beyond. The team, lead by Debby Shriber, includes Daniel Abramson, Lynne Butner, Eva Gruenberg, Debbie Locketz, Dr. Eve Merrill, Cori Miller, and Dr. Rachel Schein; this piece was written in a collaborative effort.