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Parent blog: Helping kids cope with uncertainty

Suzita Cochran, a Boulder Valley mom of three and a psychologist, says dealing with uncertainty can be tough – but there are ways to help your children cope with life’s curveballs.

Our middle son, Daniel, began middle school this year. A middle child in middle school. It’s gone about as you would expect from that combination – not too well. Daniel now attends our neighborhood middle school, but comes to it from an elementary school across town with few friends in tow.
The challenge is that most of the sixth-graders at this middle school came from neighborhood elementary schools and therefore knew each other already. Daniel is slowly getting to know other kids, but no fast friendships have emerged.

Instead, he’s been learning the lesson that sometimes this process takes a while. If only he weren’t such a social kid, like so many middle children, then he wouldn’t care and it would all be a bit easier. But he does and it hasn’t been.

So I find myself musing about teaching my children to handle uncertainty. We don’t know how this will turn out for Daniel in the end. Will he make good friends or even a best friend? Or will it end up being one of those school years when he learns to manage on his own?

But this is life, right?  We’ve all been through these tough situations. Perhaps this is why it’s so hard to watch our kids face them.

However, I did feel better after reading Jonathan Fields’ book, Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance. To be honest, I don’t know about the turning it all into brilliance part. This is middle school after all. But fear, doubt and uncertainty – those we have. Fields writes about developing a tolerance for ambiguity because ambiguity and uncertainty go hand in hand with any creative process. I immediately latched on to this concept. I was supporting Daniel to strengthen his tolerance for uncertainty. Because, as Fields says, without this there would be no creation and innovation, crucial life skills.

But uncertainty is like wearing an itchy wool sweater that’s a size too small – and because this is about middle school, we’ll say it’s also a bad color on you. The sweater’s not going to kill you, and in good moments you manage to forget about it. Yet it’s just not going to be a pleasant time when you’re wearing the thing.

So how do we help a child handle life’s ambiguities?

I had one initial idea. As it happened, our family adopted a Humane Society kitten before the school year began. Way back before we had kids, I’d come up with the idea to name our next cat Ambiguity. Then each time it plopped its fuzzy, warm body onto my lap, I’d be “sitting with Ambiguity.”  I would practice accepting the many things undone and endings unknown around me, while calmly stroking a soft kitty.

Of course when I floated the name Ambiguity by my kids, it went over like a pregnant high jumper, as my mom used to say in the ’70s. In the end we named her Shenandoah (daughter of the stars) for the river in my home state of Virginia. If wordplay and pets don’t go over in your house either, here are some other suggestions.

Six ways to help children learn to sit with ambiguity

  1. Predict. Help your child by predicting some of the challenges that may lie ahead. “Expect it to take a while to get to know all the rules in your new school.  I bet it will feel a little awkward for a bit.”  “What will you do if you don’t have someone to walk home with?”
  2. Exercise. Uncertainty is stressful. Exercise relieves tension and anxiety, in addition to helping children eat and sleep well during ambiguous times.
  3. Give kids small rewards and acknowledgments for tolerating uncertainty. During this challenging transition to middle school, Todd and I have given Daniel small treats now and again – a movie or special dessert. We tell him we’re proud of him for simply hanging in there. This falls in the same camp as my stepfather paying me for failing when I was a child.  It’s worth acknowledging the tough things our kids are handling.
  4. Travel. In new places you and your children will quickly be reminded that things never go quite as planned on a trip. Will the boat come on time? Will we like the apartment we rented? Will the kids eat the food? Travel reminds us that even when events don’t play out as expected, some sort of adventure takes place. The unpredictability and uncertainty of travel can teach kids (and parents) to become comfortable with these experiences. Like the time we took our kids to Costa Rica to learn some Spanish and one of their favorite experiences turned out to be the adventures we had riding local buses.
  5. Get a pet. Unconditional love from an animal can be exceedingly beneficial to a child facing one of life’s struggles.
  6. Share your own experiences of ambiguity. Like all children, mine adore stories Todd and I tell from our childhoods. The ones they love best are those about our past challenges and failures.

Now, share your suggestions to help us get through uncertain times.

Editor’s note: A version of this post was originally published on Cochran’s blog Play. Fight. Repeat.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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