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How to Talk About Unanticipated Change with Your Child

April 7, 2020

HoneyRock is the Outdoor Center for Leadership Development of Wheaton College. Located in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, HoneyRock provides transformational outdoor experiences for youth and young adults through summer camp, a gap year, retreats, and more.

I am a "Frozen" Superfan.

Yes, I am 27 years old, married, and pursuing a Ph.D. in Education.

But I love Frozen. I saw both movies the day they were released and I am already planning my trip to Disney World when they open the new Frozen-themed park.

My favorite character? That’s easy. Olaf. I love the mixture of wisdom and playfulness that he embodies. He’s always good for a laugh and a metaphor – two of my other favorite things.

In Frozen 2 the story follows the main characters, Elsa, Anna, Christoph, Sven, and Olaf as they seek to learn the truth about their lost parents and the legend of the enchanted forest. As they journey together, each of the characters in the movie is simultaneously engaged in their own personal journey. For Olaf, the journey is one of dealing with change.

Early in the movie, Olaf, bathing in the warm sun (thanks to his magical permafrost), proclaims “Oh, I wish things could stay like this forever.”

As an early autumn leaf falls to the ground beside him his tone changes and he sits up, angrily adding: “And yet, change mocks us with her beauty”.

Nervously, he turns to Anna: “Anna, do you ever worry about the notion that nothing is permanent?”

I resonate with Olaf’s concern. We have a phrase we use here at HoneyRock that “the only thing constant is change”. While I know this too be true, it is unsettling. Life changes constantly. Every day is a new day, different than the last and different from the next. But if change is so constant, shouldn’t we be accustomed to it by now?

Yes and no.

Unanticipated and Anticipated Change Impacts Us Differently

Here’s the thing. Change comes in two main forms: anticipated and unanticipated.

COVID-19 is an unanticipated change.

Unfortunately, it's the unanticipated changes that throw us off the most. An anticipated change is like getting married, graduating from school, retiring from work, sending a child to college—we have time to plan and prepare ourselves. We can begin grieving losses associated with change before they happen.

From the moment we know a change is coming, we start to build up psychological callouses that will lessen the blow of the change when it comes. We become comfortable with the idea of the impending new reality and then, like a climber whose hands have calloused after weeks of training, we continue to climb. It can still hurt, but we climb on.

With unanticipated changes—things like the sudden loss of a loved one or friend, the loss of a job, COVID-19—we do not have enough time or information to prepare ourselves.

We are forced to meet unanticipated change suddenly and head-on. We feel raw and vulnerable to the sudden impact of our new reality. Without the callouses built up through preparation, we feel the pain acutely. Our survival instincts kick in. We fret. We worry. We fear. We regret. 

When change is anticipated, we may still pause and mark the moment, reflecting on what has been and what will be, but we tend to move into the future with relative ease.

How to Confront Sudden and Unanticipated Change

That’s not the case with unanticipated change. Unanticipated change actually requires more engagement from us. When change is unanticipated, it is important that we dig in and do three things:

  1. Pause and grieve. Change always involves some element of loss. It is important, then, that we allow ourselves to grieve. While it might be easier to jump directly to make a plan (step #2), don’t skip this step.

    As your child sits at home, missing school, friends, and routine, it is important to give them space to grieve.

    It doesn’t only apply to your child. As you try and balance your own work, manage your student’s eLearning, and meet needs of extended family members, and more…recognize that you’re facing a significant change. Take time to name your losses and grieve them.
  2. Make a plan. When change is unanticipated, it is important that we develop a plan. In this case, start with the basics: food, rest, work/school. Get everyone involved in your home to make it happen. Kids have a role to play in this, too. You’re a team! From learning to occupy themselves while you’re working to helping out with dinner to doing a few extra chores…you’re all in this together.

    Once you have the essentials down, talk about fun activities and/or goals. Make a list of skills to learn, family videos to create, books to read together...get creative! It can be a list for the whole family or each individual member could create a personal list. When you’re bored or not quite sure what to do, dig out the list and pick an activity.

  3. Focus on the can’s, not the cant’s. When we experience unanticipated change, we tend to be more pessimistic and focus on what we don’t have and can’t do. We can’t go to church. We can’t go to school. We can’t go to work. But what about the things that we can do? We can go outside, spend time with family, call friends, play new games, learn a new skill, and more.

    As you continue to navigate this change, try and name a “can” for every “can’t.” It might start to get old, but as you build the habit you’ll start to look for more opportunities rather than limitations.

A Final Two Takeaways from "Frozen" on Change

First, after Olaf expresses his concern about the lack of permanence in life to Anna, we learn through his song that while the world around us may change, some things remain constant.

For Christians, one of those constants us undeniable the goodness and presence of God. Another constant is the relationship we have with the people of God. Our task in this space of unanticipated change is to hold on to those things instead of holding onto the pain of change.

Second, after being forced out of Arendale by a storm, my good friend Olaf finds himself sitting on a cliff, surrounded by children poking icicles into his body. Concerned, Christoph asks him if he is okay. Olaf, smiling, looks to his friends and says: “We call this making the best out of what we can control”.

When we're faced with unanticipated changes, sometimes the best thing we can do for ourselves, for our families, and for our communities is to remember what is constant and to make the best out what is within our control.

father and son walking and talking at honeyrock
How to Facilitate Reflective Conversations

There are so many opportunities for us to learn more about ourselves, other people, and God every day if we take the time to see it.

Even more opportunities arise when we’re facing a big challenge. During summer camp programs, challenges look like meeting your new cabinmates, being away from home for the first time, remembering to put on sunscreen, navigating the Challenge Course, and more…

At the time I’m writing this, we’re all facing a big challenge: COVID-19. We’re having new conversations with our kids, adjusting to new rhythms, and facing new problems. It’s posing significant new challenges to all of us.