Helping Kids Through Disappointment
Updated: Sep 20, 2021
No parent likes seeing their child hurting, we would do just about anything to save them from pain. But disappointment is something everyone needs to experience and learn to deal with well. We often want to walk our kids quickly through disappointment, distract them or buy them something to make them feel better. When we don't allow our kids to go through the process of being disappointed, we are robbing them from being able to develop resilience and ultimately confidence that they can overcome or at least survive setbacks.
Disappointments are going to look different to different kids. For some it will be that they didn't make it through auditions for the band or choir. For others it will not getting a spot on their sport's team or losing a game. At the moment when the world has changed in so many ways due to the Covid pandemic, the disappointments can be overwhelming. Concerts have been cancelled, graduation ceremonies, sporting events, parties and so many other important events have changed if not been completely cancelled. All of these bring a multitude of disappointments. So how do we not feel completely defeated as parents when we have to watch our child suffer? It isn't easy, but ultimately if we help our kids through they will be so much better equipped for adult life than we were. They will have the resilience to take on the world.
Validate the feeling and wait
When something happens that upsets your child, don't be in a rush to move them through it, as uncomfortable as that sounds. Acknowledge that it feels horrible, that the situation doesn't feel fair. Don't try and sugar coat it, sometimes things really are just so disappointing. Let them talk, cry or whatever they need, just be there for them for as long as it takes. Don't try to fix anything, just sit and listen. I think Parents find this incredibly hard, we just want to fix it and make it better, but just wait. Wait till they are ready, they need to know that the hard emotions will pass. If we never allow kids to experience to full wave of an emotion then emotions can be very scary things.
Be careful not to dismiss their feelings as "silly" or not a big deal. This only causes them to feel like their feelings aren't important and that you don't "get it". This makes them feel more isolated, taking them into a downward spiral of difficult and damaging emotions.
Share a similar experience
Now you have to be careful when we share our experiences. The idea is to help your child understand that you have been through similar things and that you understand, not to "out do" them. Don't try and make their disappointment feel small in comparison to yours, it is not about you. However, if you have been through something similar then it can be helpful for them to realise that they aren't the only one to have experienced this. By sharing a time when you felt the same way you are connecting with them on that emotion.
If you have never been through anything like what you child is going through then let them know that you can imagine how it must feel. There are bound to be lots of disappointments that our kids are experiencing through a pandemic that we have never had to deal with. That's okay, you can still empathise and express how difficult it must be for them.
Praise the effort
It is so important that our kids know that even if they "fail" at something, that your love will never change. If they are disappointed because they didn't make it through an audition or a test that they tried hard to do well in, then make sure you shift the focus to the effort and the bravery that it took in the first place. They need to know that you see more than the end result and it is their character that matters.
If they are disappointed by something that is out of their control, such as covid cancellations, then let them see that you are impressed with them as a person. If they can't have a birthday party, talk about all the ways you have seen them grow in the past year. If they are missing out on a graduation, talk about how they do deserve it because they have done so well throughout the year.
Come up with a plan
Don't move to this step too quickly. Be guided by your child when they might be ready to think of a way through the problem. When they have moved through the difficult emotions they are then able to work out what was the cause, is their anything they can do and how can they avoid it from happening again. Disappointment can be a great motivator if we let it.
Work out with your child what was the problem? Was there anything they could have done?Had they not practiced/studied enough? If so, can they ask to try again? Or maybe they can make a plan to get through next time. How have they overcome disappointments in the past? What are the skills you have noticed that they could use again?
If it is something out of their control, is there anything else they could do. If they can't have the big birthday party they wanted could they have a smaller one or a virtual one? You can offer suggestions but as much as possible try and let them work out what to do. You want them to develop this skill, not feel that they have to ask someone else solve their problems. Just support them and think through the plans with them. If you don't think the plan will work then go through "what would happen if we did that"?
If their disappointment is not something that they want to improve then find their strengths. We aren't good at everything but everyone is good or passionate about something. It can be helpful for them to realise that it is okay to not be good at somethings. We can't all be good runners or great singers. Help them find what they are good at and follow goals for that.
Role Model Disappointment
Kids are always watching and we can use this to our advantage. When we are disappointed or plans don't work out as you had hoped, let them see. Say how you feel when an appointment got changed or meeting with your friends was cancelled. But also let them hear you problem-solve what you can do and how you try and cope. Obviously don't do this with big worries, kids don't need to take on adult concerns. But you may as well let them hear you working things out in a positive way, they are watching anyway.
We need kids to see that disappointments are a part of life, we all go through them. But what matters is how we move through the disappointment to what sometimes turns out to be the best learning experiences.