The Most Encouraging Things You Can Say to Kids

Whether it's a missed birthday party due to social distancing or a tough homework assignment that makes her feel like giving up, here are the best words you can say to your child to keep her spirits up and confidence high.

We're living through some strange times. Schools are closed, offices are shut down, you have to stay inside at all times, and the toilet paper section at the grocery store is constantly empty. This is the pandemic of 2020 and besides the mixed emotions you're feeling, your kids are going through something entirely unknown and scary in their own way. How can you help them navigate?

encouraging things you can say to kids
Illustration by Emma Darvick

"Allow your children to ask questions and answer them honestly with the facts about what is going on," says Francyne Zeltser, Psy.D., a child psychologist on Long Island, New York. "It's important to address the whys—why is school closed, why you can't see your friends, why are people wearing masks—and if you're not sure of an answer, tell them that, then consult with someone who can help," Dr. Zeltser adds. Constantly checking in with your child and providing them the opportunity to ask questions will help them feel more at ease as time goes on. "Remember children are sponges, they absorb so much of what is going on in their environment, even when you don't think they are listening," says Dr. Zeltser.

There will be times however when your child isn't asking questions or complaining, but they're still struggling in some way and need your help. Take a cue from our expert advice on how to be as encouraging as you can be when your child is in need of a little pick me up.

How to Encourage Your Kid to Look on the Bright Side

Point out the silver linings. However bad something may seem, there's always a good aspect or "silver lining" to be found. "Before you get to the good, acknowledge what it is that's making your child feel down and validate their feelings," says Jaclyn Shlisky, a clinical psychologist who works with children in Syosset, NY. She suggests actually digging into the negativity a bit, and try to refrain from saying "that's ok" or "it's ok" as you don't want your child to feel like you're erasing their thoughts and feelings.

If your kindergartener says she misses going to birthday parties, first show her you understand. Say something like: "I miss taking you to your friend's birthday parties" then offer a coping statement to reframe the conversation. Something like, "Your friend's birthday is next weekend, let's plan what craft we can make her and decorate the car for when we drive by to say hello."

She recommends the pattern of validating feelings, offering positive affirmations, then following up with an activity to boost your child's excitement. "It's important that your little ones have something new to look forward to almost every day," Dr. Shlisky says. "In elementary schools, kids know what's coming up every day—a special assembly, a guest speaker, a birthday party, an after school activity—but now that they're home it feels a lot like Groundhog Day for them," she says. Even if the thing they want to look forward to is just a family walk after dinner, movie night or a board game at lunchtime, make it happen. It will make their day more than you can know.

How to Encourage Your Child to Try Again

Homeschooling is not only tough on you, but your kids have to get used to mom or dad turning into teacher for part of their day. As parents we may not know the right way to teach a topic or push our kids to keep going.

"When your child is struggling with an assignment, it's helpful to say something like, 'You feel like you're not good at this yet because you haven't practiced, but the more you practice the better and better you will get,'" Dr. Shlisky says. It's important to emphasize the "yet" and follow up with an example about something you overcame with practice. Then you want to make sure to recognize and point it out when your child is working at something, regardless of their result. "Even if your kindergartener is still struggling with subtraction, applaud their persistence and make an exaggerated effort to rejoice with them when they do finally succeed," she says.

You can reward your child for the small achievements, too. For every correct spelling on your child's writing assignment, or for every time your shy kid raises his hand during his daily Zoom session, an M&M or a Jellybean is OK! "Some kids need a little extra push, so if they are task dependent for task completion, do what you have to do to help them and gradually decrease the treats as they start to get more correct answers," Dr. Shlisky suggests.

How to Encourage Your Child to be Brave

If you want your child to be brave, you have to show them bravery. "Allow your child to witness you stepping outside of your comfort zone," says Dr. Shlisky. With many more days spent at home, your child may be doing more activities than ever before, like learning how to ride a bike without training wheels, rollerblade or do a cartwheel. "This is the perfect breeding ground for your children to have the opportunity to try new things since they're surrounded by family and can lean on parents and siblings every day for extra help," she says. If it's learning how to ride a two-wheeler, getting outside after lunch every day and spending a couple of minutes on your bikes will show your child they have nothing to be scared of. If your child thinks dancing makes them look silly, have a dance party with them and go all out yourself (they'll love making fun of you and worry less about themselves!). "When the moments happen when your character is tested in front of your child, show them the strength you possess to step out of your own comfort zone—you'll be building a sense of togetherness that they'll pick up on," Dr. Shlisky says.

How to Encourage Your Child to Work Through Frustrations

Coping with frustration before the pandemic might have felt a little different than it does for them today. Children get frustrated when they want to be able to do something on their own, meet expectations, and with being denied things they want (like returning to school or seeing their friends). "Parents and children alike are struggling during this uncertain time. It's important for parents to be a little more patient and forgiving towards their children and also themselves. It's normal for children to exhibit some behavioral outbursts during this time, acting out or being more sensitive or babyish than usual," Dr. Zeltser says. Take the time to connect with your child, listen to his frustrations and concerns and try to understand why he's feeling the way he is. Say things like, "I can see you're feeling upset" or "You look really annoyed"—acknowledging their disposition will help you get to the core of what's bugging them. Dr. Zeltser suggests brainstorming ways your child can calm down when he is starting to feel frustrated with schoolwork or having to stay inside on another rainy day. Sitting in a favorite chair or spot on the couch to decompress, listening to a favorite song or taking 10 deep breaths with eyes closed are some meditative ways to feeling refreshed.

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