Ways to Help Kids Who Feel Sad About Missed Activities

Brothers and sister on sofa looking bored. Their school activities were canceled because of coronavirus.

Richard Lewisohn / Cultura / Getty Images 

Key Takeaways

  • The pandemic has created a need for social distancing, leading many schools and activities to shut their doors.
  • The sudden lack of familiar activities can feel overwhelming and create stress, confusion, and sadness for kids.
  • It's important for parents to support their kids through this challenging and difficult time by providing ways for them to cope with the loss of familiarity.

For the majority of kids in America, the coronavirus pandemic has brought their school years to an abrupt halt. Initially, the disruption may have seemed like it would be a fairly temporary situation. But now that a few weeks have long passed, it has become clear that school is going to be out for a while—and in many cases, probably through the end of the school year.

This sudden change is likely overwhelming to everyone. Having the kids home during the weekdays can turn everything upside down. You've probably been scrambling to figure out how to play the role of a work-at-home parent and a homeschool teacher all at once.

Your kids may be feeling a bit confused and saddened by the situation, as well. At first, a few days off from school may have felt fun. But after a week or two, they may be struggling to understand why they can’t go back and why all of their activities have been canceled. It is important to support them as they adjust to the changes—especially since a lot of uncertainty remains about when their activities will resume again.

Talk About How Things Are Different Now

Sometimes parents think, “Well if she’s not talking about that field trip that got canceled, maybe she doesn’t remember,” or “He must not miss baseball that much. He hasn’t mentioned it lately.” But just because kids are not talking about something doesn’t mean that they aren't affected by it.

Don’t be afraid to be the first one to bring it up. You aren’t saying something they don’t already know. And you won’t upset them just by raising the issue.

Create Space for a Dialogue

Ask open-ended questions like, “What is it like for you right now without school or any activities?” or “How are you doing without being able to play ball this spring?”

Talk about how things are different for everyone. Name the changes you see. “We all sleep in a little later and have breakfast together.” Or, “Now you eat lunch with your brother instead of your friends.”

You might also help them talk about which things were better when they were in school and which things were worse. Your child might say something like it was better when they got to see their friends but worse that they had to eat school lunch.

Similarly, talk about what’s better and worse about staying home. They might say it’s better that they get to watch more TV but worse that they don’t have recess on the school playground.

Simply acknowledging how life is different—and that some aspects might be better while others are worse—can be reassuring for kids. It can also help them make a little more sense out of a really confusing situation.

Emphasize the Reasons for Staying Safe at Home

Kids don't need to be watching news stories about death tolls and community spread. But they will definitely benefit from a discussion about the reasons why staying at home is a safer choice for everyone.

Discuss how staying at home prevents people from sharing germs. And this means fewer people will get sick. Talk about how everyone in the entire world is staying home right now. It'll help them feel a little less alone.

Explain how it is good to keep everyone in your family healthier, and it is also a kind thing to do for people in your community. So even though it’s sad they're missing out on some of their favorite activities, staying home is the safest and kindest thing that they can do for everyone.

Use Empowering Language

Avoid using phrases like “stuck at home” or “can’t get out.” This type of language implies that you are all victims who are trapped in an unbearable situation. It can cause kids to feel even worse about their circumstances.

Instead, use empowering language. Talk about being “safer at home” and “choosing to stay in.” This way kids know that you are making good choices because you want to, not because you are obligated to.

If you are feeling frustrated and anxious by the current situation, avoid talking too much about this in front of your kids. Your feelings will rub off on them.

Rather than dwell on how awful things are right now, focus on how good things will be down the road. Tell them that you are looking forward to going and visiting Grandma and Grandpa when it's safe for them. Or mention that you can’t wait to go to the playground again once social distancing comes to an end.

Help Them Label Their Feelings

Your kids might need a little help figuring out how they feel. One way you can do this is to assist them in putting a name to their emotions. Keep in mind that they might be feeling a lot of different things all at once.

  • Print out a list of faces. If you have younger children who don’t read well yet, a list of faces that clearly depicts emotions like “frustrated,” “angry,” “sad,” “happy,” and “scared” can be helpful. You might even ask your child to draw those faces on a piece of paper and point to the ones they are feeling right now.
  • Make a list of feeling words. Older kids might benefit from a list of printed feeling words. More complicated words like “disappointed” and “embarrassed” can be helpful.
  • Use a feeling thermometer. Some kids just don’t like to put a name to their emotions. They do better with identifying a number on a scale from 1 to 10. They might say, “I'm feeling about a four today,” when they are struggling. When they are having a good day, they might feel more like an eight. Ask them to draw a mood thermometer. Then check in with them regularly about which number they are.

You can do this by simply asking, “How are you feeling today?” On important days, you might even say something like, “I know you were supposed to have your concert today. How are you feeling about that?”

Showing interest in their feelings may help them talk more about how they are doing. And sometimes just naming an emotion can be a powerful way to reduce its intensity.

Practice Healthy Coping Skills

Clearly, at this point, there may still be more questions than answers. So kids' uncertainty and anxiety are understandable. Teaching them healthy ways to cope with it now, however, can help them turn to these skills in the future when they are faced with other tough circumstances.

As kids work through their complicated feelings, they will need healthy skills to deal with them. So work with your child on identifying strategies that help them feel better when they are dealing with boredom, loneliness, frustration, sadness, or any other feelings that might come up.

Calm Down Kit

You might create a “calm down kit” as a way to help your child relax when they are feeling angry or anxious. This could be a simple shoebox filled with items that they find soothing—a coloring book, playdoh, or a piece of their favorite candy.

When they are upset, you can simply say, “Go do something in your ‘calm down kit.’" This can remind them to take responsibility for their own emotions, and you won’t always have to be the one to calm them down.

Mood Boosters

Similarly, you might create a list of “mood boosters” for when they are sad. These might be fun little activities that could cheer them up when they're feeling down.

It might be a notebook or piece of paper that lists ideas like, “Call Grandma, and tell her your three favorite jokes,” or “Sing your favorite song while dancing around the room.” When your child is feeling down, you might suggest they try a mood booster or two.

You might also ask your child to draw a picture that shows how they feel right now, or of an activity they might be excited to do once things are back to normal. They may find drawing a picture gives them an expressive outlet that helps them feel better.

Older kids may enjoy journaling about their experiences. Kids who don’t like to talk about their feelings may be willing to write them down knowing that you’ll read it and respond in writing. It's also ok if they'd rather keep their writing a secret, just knowing they got some stuff off their chest is beneficial.

Some kids may even appreciate writing in a journal together. They might enjoy having a shared journal with a friend who is going through the same thing. Writing about how much they both miss dance class or how sad they are that they can’t be on the team together may help them stay connected.

The goal is to help figure out what works for your child and then encourage your child to practice those skills. Provide plenty of guidance and reassurance as they are working through some tough emotions.

Identify Ways to Stay Connected

Help your child find ways to maintain a connection with the activities they are not able to do anymore. Can they still practice their favorite sport or activity on their own? Can they keep learning about their activities through books?

If they were on a team, can they still speak to the coach on video chat once in a while? Or could they send a handwritten note to an instructor that says they miss being there?

Connecting with the activity—as well as the people in it—can help them feel better. It may serve as a reminder that it is not just them who is missing out.

For example, a younger kid might imagine that dance class is still being held without them. Connecting with the instructor or the other kids can remind them that no one is able to participate right now.

Help Them See That Everyone Is Staying Home

Help your kids see that we are all in this together. And by staying home, they are being part of an even bigger team.

Look for images and videos of children from around the world who are staying home right now. Or help them video chat with their friends from school, so they can see that their friends are doing the same things they are.

This can help them feel a little bit less lonely. And it can show them that it is not just their world that is weird right now. The whole world is somewhat upside down at the moment.

Offer Realistic Reassurance

When your child asks questions like, “Will I be able to play softball this summer?” you might be tempted to say, “Yes. Of course!” as a way to reassure them. But it is important that you do not make any extra promises that you can’t necessarily keep.

It’s OK to say, “I sure hope so,” when your child asks a question. But don’t attempt to give a timeline until you really have one.

Instead, offer reassurance that everyone is working hard to make things safe so that you can get back to community activities as soon as possible.

Focus on community members doing their part—like paramedics, physicians, nurses, and government officials. Talk about how people are supporting one another right now and working hard to solve the problem, even while they are practicing social distancing.

Let your kids know that although it is uncomfortable and disappointing for everyone to miss out on so many community activities, all of you can handle it. And they are strong, capable kids who can deal with the situation too.

What This Means For You

Without activities, many families are feeling a bit lost about how to spend their time. And you might be questioning some of the previous rules you have had about bedtime or electronics use in the past. Keep in mind that while kids need consistency and structure, it is a bizarre time where all the usual rules might not apply.

You may need to relax some rules and add some new ones as the situation continues to unfold. But stay flexible, and show your kids that you can all work together through this challenging time, even when you don’t have the normal activities to keep you busy.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.