Behaviour & Emotions

How to talk about: Future uncertainty

Future uncertainty

Amongst a raft of other challenges, Covid certainly made it tricky to plan ahead. And just when we thought it was safe to venture out and take confident steps into the future, turns out it wasn’t. If you’re looking for an appropriate approach to life at the moment, you could try ‘One day at a time’. Personally I’m leaning on the slightly more poetic ‘Hold everything lightly’.

That’s all very well for the grown-ups, but for our kids – all this uncertainty is hard to stomach and a cliché may not be enough to calm the storm. (Sorry, now we’re using layers of cliché!)

So how do we talk to our kids about a future that is so uncertain? Openly, compassionately and empathetically is the short answer. Anxiety and stress are understandable responses in our current climate and our first priority as parents is to simply be there for our kids – to listen and to act as a buffer for those inevitable big feelings.

Cushioning the blow with Pause, Reflect, Engage

Pandemics, natural disasters and epic weather events all have a way of raining on our parades. In recent years, our kids have faced repeated disappointments when the events they were so looking forward to have been wiped off the family calendar. Helping our kids cope with disappointment is an article in itself, but in summary – the Pause, Reflect, Engage tool is super helpful in this context to support our kids in understanding and processing their emotion; be it grief, anxiety, frustration, disappointment, or all of the above.

There may not be much we can practically do about the future, but we can control our response to things that concern us.

In a nutshell, Pause reminds us to stop and take a deep breath when confronted by overwhelming emotions (oxygen being a gift to our brain and nervous system). Reflect encourages us to consider our inner world and name the emotion we are feeling. Deeper understanding of what we are feeling, and why we feel like we do, has a calming influence on us and empowers us to take the next step – to Engage. This is the problem-solving part of the process, whereby we draw on our understanding of why we feel how we do to calmly and constructively find the way forward. There may not be much we can practically do about the future, but we can control our response to things that concern us. For more on Pause, Reflect, Engage, check out Dr Linde-Marie Amersfoort’s article explaining how to use the tool with your kids here.

Pause, Reflect and Engage is for everyone – it goes without saying that our kids are not the only ones feeling uncertain about the future! Taking care of our own health and well-being is paramount if we’re to effectively help our kids. This is one of those times when we need to first put on our own oxygen mask, before we attend to our children.

Questions and answers

Our kids will have big questions about the future:

"Will my soccer tournament go ahead next week?"

"What will I be able to do for my birthday?"

"What’s going to happen with NCEA if we're self-isolating?"

"Am I ever going to be able to travel France for an OE like you did?"

As hard as it can be to provide satisfying answers to our kids’ questions right now, being a consistently approachable sounding board will mean the world.

Do your best to provide an honest answer, but keep in mind that “Sorry honey, I just don’t know right now – but I’ll let you know what’s happening as soon as I get more information” is an adequate response.

As is redirecting some questions to a more knowledgeable source:

“How about we email your dean about that NCEA assessment.”

“Your coach is going to make an announcement tomorrow, we’ll know more then.”

“We're waiting for an update from the Civil Defence people, I'll let you know as soon as I find out more."

Calm and comforting

Some of our kids’ questioning is seeking comfort as much as answers. Parents, this is the moment to lend kids our calm. Seeing their folks freaking out about the future isn’t helpful, but neither is a strange vibe of denial. Plastering on a grin and saying “Everything is going to be fine kids, don’t worry!” as we nervously fill the garage with tinned food and toilet paper, and attempt to wrap the house in bubble wrap… yeah, they’ll probably see through that!

Our kids need our honesty, but packaged in protective calm that provides hope and encouragement. Try and offer gentle and relaxed responses to any of your child’s queries.

“That’s a good question, I understand why you’re concerned about that. I think it’s going to be okay, we just have to wait patiently for a bit longer.”

Remember that calm is contagious! Take a deep breath and act calm – chances are you will then feel calmer. And the really helpful part of the equation: calm parents breed calm kids.

Share what you do know, offering age-appropriate information to your kids. The fact is, humanity is no stranger to calamity. You could share stories around events from history, and encourage your kids that people have faced uncertain times before and things have still worked out okay.

Our kids need our honesty, but packaged in protective calm that provides hope and encouragement.

Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t

Kids may or may not appreciate the reminder that just because the exam date is up in the air, it’s still a great time to prepare, practise and study!

The trip may be on hold for now, but you can still do research on places you’d love to visit one day and things you’d like to do once you get there.

A lot is out of our control at the moment, but that’s actually okay – so long as we focus on the things that we can do something about. Cooking a yummy dinner, taking a walk and getting enough exercise, catching up on homework, practising some ballet in the garage, learning French online…

When we steer our kids away from a sense of hopelessness and towards something constructive, we are helping them retain feelings of confidence in their future – even if uncertainty inevitably still lurks!

Some things stay the same

What have we still got? We’ve got each other! Prioritising family relationships and connection with our kids is incredibly powerful. The future includes other certainties too. When uncertainty threatens to overwhelm our kids, we can push back by talking about the constants. Listing five positives for every worry could do us all a world of good.

  1. Food in the fridge and pantry (and potentially the garage, if you’ve been buying in bulk)

  2. Netflix and Monopoly Deal

  3. Pizza and movie night

  4. Humour, and the clever people who consistently churn our relevant memes

  5. Silver linings, and the optimists who like to remind us of them…

Ellie Gwilliam

Ellie Gwilliam

Ellie Gwilliam is a passionate communicator, especially on topics relating to families. After 20 years in Auckland working mainly in publishing, Ellie now lives in Northland, with her husband and their three daughters, where she works from home as content editor for Parenting Place. Ellie writes with hope and humour, inspired by the goal of encouraging parents everywhere in the vital work they are doing raising our precious tamariki.

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