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To Have and Have Not

April 22, 2020

A swatch of silver lining during the coronavirus pandemic: To Have (sparking gratitude) and Have Not (naming losses) conversations with the children. There’s much they can learn — lessons for a lifetime of emotional health and well-being — by guiding them through these tough times in an emotionally intelligent way.

Start a To Have conversation by shining a light on what’s worth appreciating during these days of so much restriction. Model it for them: “I’m grateful that we have a place to live during this difficult time,” or “I’m grateful that there are delivery people who bring us things we need when most stores are closed,” or “I’m grateful that we have electricity to power our televisions and our computers.” Add: “It feels good to be grateful.” Then ask the children — don’t tell them — what they’re grateful for. If they don’t know what to say, prompt them with light questions: “I’m wondering if you’re feeling grateful to have a videogame system while we’re stuck at home,” or “I’m wondering if you’re feeling grateful that we have food to eat.” Accept their answers without judgment, with only interest and curiosity. If they can’t name anything they’re grateful for, let that be okay. Initiate a similar conversation the following week. After a while and with the help of your modeling, they will likely join in.

Start the Have Not conversation also by modeling for the children: “I miss our visits with Grandma Joan,” or “I miss talking to the other parents when I walk you to school in the morning,” or “I miss taking you for ice cream on the weekends.” And then: “I feel sad when I think about what I miss.” When it’s their turn to name their losses — and their sadness — validate their pain: “Of course you feel sad about that.” We want them to understand that loss brings sadness, and sadness is best expressed out loud. Resist any impulse to “fix” their sadness by pointing out what they have to be grateful for; simply listen and offer attunement (see Are You Okay?). Let them know that sadness might linger after the conversation ends. Teach them that it’s natural for our feelings to shape our moods, and that moods after a while dissolve into different feelings and different moods. Point out that it’s all part of life’s cycle, that things are always changing in nature and we humans — a species within the animal kingdom — are a part of that.