Years ago, I discovered The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook. This series of books reviewed how to land a plane, survive a killer bee attack, and other extreme situations. However, at its root is the desire to know how to get yourself and those you love out of unpleasant and occasionally dangerous circumstances. This has been my M.O. as well.
Don’t write me off as a pessimist – my glass is very often half full. I consider myself to be a realist. Things can go wrong, so whenever I am planning something big or small, I always run through the worst-case scenario in my head. When kids entered the picture, I felt an even greater need to control and plan for every possible bit of bad luck. I vowed not to be surprised by any major or minor disasters. Flight delayed – no problem. Extra snacks, games, and books in the carry-on bag. Kid needs a band-aid, Tylenol, tissues, sunscreen – not to worry. I have my giant mom purse at the ready. However, there are worst-case scenarios that even the best planner cannot anticipate, and it is how you handle those that will truly define you.
Over the last few years, my family has had its share of terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days. Several family members have passed away, some very unexpectedly. Two cancer diagnoses. Hospital stays. It is easy to plan for an unexpected trip to the bathroom while on I-95; it is something all-together different when you have to change vacation plans to head to New York for a funeral. How do you explain to kids that life does not always go as you want it to while making sure that they retain that optimism that all kids should have? I have found that the following things have worked for us:
- Make sure your kids know that there is no right or wrong way to express their emotions. Some children will get very upset when they hear bad news and others will take it in stride. There are times when they will get very sad immediately upon hearing the news and times when weeks or months later the emotions will manifest themselves in anger, depression, or anxiety. Check in with them periodically to assure them that whatever they are feeling is valid and that venting is OK.
- Don’t sugarcoat things. If you tell your kids that “everything will be fine” and then it isn’t, they will lose trust in you. Don’t say that you have an “owey” when you are going to be sick for months and a band-aid is not going to do the trick. Of course, the amount of information that you give an older child is different than what you might tell a toddler, but either way, NO B.S.!
- Remember that kids are inherently self-centered. I’ve found that if a crisis does not impact their routines too tremendously, they are better able to handle the situation. For example, our recent vacation was sidetracked by a very unexpected death in the family. We were on the road, our entire plan was thrown out the window, and they were dealing with grief and anger at the same time. On other occasions, bad things have happened, but we have been home and they were still going to school, sleeping in their own beds and in their comfort zones. Try to keep things as routine as possible, and this will put them at ease.
There is an old Yiddish phrase, “Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht” meaning, “Man Plans, and God Laughs.” No matter how much time and effort you put into planning something, there is always the potential for the plan to get derailed. Remember that adversity can teach some important lessons and kids are very resilient. And maybe those 529 plans can be used for therapy…!