5 Ways to Help Kids Cope with Uncertainty

By Deborah Serani, Psy.D., author of Sometimes When I’m Sad

5 Ways to Help Kids Cope with Uncertainty

The world has a lot of moving parts, with people, places, and predicaments bearing down on us. Uncertainty can occur in global, local, and personal ways, all of which affect us and our children. Given that life is an ever-changing experience, you’d think we’d be better at dealing with uncertainty. But the truth is that humans crave stability even though life is anything but predictable.

When it comes to dealing with uncertainty, it’s helpful to use strategies to adapt to such stressful events. This is called coping. These strategies come easily to some, while others have to learn how to use them. Essentially, coping is an active process where you stop for a moment, appraise the situation you’re faced with, target the problem, and then choose a set of interventions to manage the uncertain event.

How to Cope Well

I like to teach the children and parents I work with not only how to cope, but how to cope well. By following the list below, you’ll learn how to survive AND thrive in uncertain times.

1. Stay grounded.

Make sure you create a space that shows your child that home is safe. While the world may feel unpredictable, you can structure your home so that you and your family feel grounded. Reduce the sadness and stress of uncertainty by keeping TV or news media off. Don’t talk openly about sensational stories, avoid being on your phone or computer when you can, and create a more present, interactive connection with your kids. Think of your home as not just a safe haven, but a nurturing sanctuary from the uncertainty of life.

2. Rely on routines.

Keep scheduled routines for eating meals at the same time, having a set bedtime, and doing daily chores. If school resumes online, in person, or a combination of both, carve out regularly scheduled times for academics. Keep a routine for your own adult self too—be it for work, relaxation, or chores.

Routines show your child that while life may feel stressful and overwhelming, home has a steady rhythm. Research shows that when you and your child are aware of the organized aspects of the day, you have a greater tolerance for unpredictability.

3. Be smart about your information sources.

During uncertain times, getting to the truth about stories, situations, or statistics can be exhausting. Trusting what you learn can also feel elusive. When it comes to COVID-19, be smart about where you’re getting your information. Be guardedly curious, and try not to accept sensational stories as factual.

My rule of thumb when disaster or uncertainty strikes is that I ground myself in science and look to my local and state government resources for information. Be mindful not to share unfounded information with children. This can create deeper feelings of helplessness than they may already be experiencing.

4. Embrace uncertainty.

Living with uncertainty means being able to not know what tomorrow brings. Teaching your child about hope and possibility should also include helping them endure the timelessness before a good change arrives. Instead of focusing on how uncertainty can create sadness or anxiety, what if you shifted the focus to how uncertainty could create wonder? Or curiosity? “I don’t know when we’ll be back at school, but what kinds of ways can you think of that could work?”

Confronting what we don’t know can trigger creative thinking. It can summon out-of-the-box problem-solving. “Let’s think about a way we can do a virtual sleepover with your friends.” It can spark conversation that looks at empowerment in the face of the unpredictable. “What do you think ancient Egyptian kids did for fun at night? I wonder if there’s an ancient game they played that we can learn?”

5. Practice gratitude.

When uncertainty arises, many of us focus on managing the crisis. And once we stabilize the situation, our next thought is usually about preparing for the next thing that might go wrong. Our brains are programmed to scan for the next spot of trouble. This evolutionary neural wiring helped keep us safe back in the day. But you can offset this instinct to worry by practicing gratitude.

Studies show that when you name people you appreciate or things you feel grateful for, a boost of the feel-good neurochemicals serotonin and dopamine in your brain reduce worry. Teach your children to notice and reflect on meaningful things and people in their lives—and model this behavior yourself.

Deborah SeraniDeborah Serani, Psy.D., is an award-winning author and psychologist in practice for 30 years. She is also a professor at Adelphi University, and her writing on the subjects of depression and trauma has been published in academic journals. Dr. Serani is a go-to expert for psychological issues. Her interviews can be found in Newsday, Psychology Today, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, The Associated Press, and affiliate radio programs at CBS and NPR, among others. She is also a TEDx speaker and has worked as a technical advisor for the NBC television show Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. She lives in New York City.

Sometimes When I'm SadDeborah is the author of Sometimes When I’m Sad.

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