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How Parents Can Help Their Children Deal With Disappointment

By Michael Lewis

disappointed childDisappointment is the result of unmet expectations, and is often accompanied by frustration, anger, sadness, and/or withdrawal. According to Dr. Ilona Roth, noted author on autism spectrum disorders and senior lecturer in psychology at the Open University UK, children begin to show elements of imagination at as early as one year of age, and, by two or three year of age, are conjuring thoughts about what might happen (or even what could really never happen). As a consequence, they develop expectations early about disappointment and begin to develop coping mechanisms upon which they will rely for the rest of their lives.

Failure to teach a child to handle disappointment appropriately can result in a teenager  or adult who is “disappointment averse.” As a consequence, they give up easily or quit trying, reinforcing the sense of failure and causing them to feel incompetent and inadequate. Without encouragement and help in learning how to overcome their emotions, they can spiral downward into self-pity and depression, unwilling to take any risks because of the fear of more disappointment.

Parents should recognize that life is full of disappointments for everyone, from a 4-year old not being able to swim due to an unexpected rainstorm, an 8-year old not being invited to a birthday party , a 16-year-old not making the varsity team, or an 18-year-old not getting into the college of one’s choice. As Anton Chekhov, a famous Russian author observed, “There are still many more days of failure ahead, whole seasons of failure, things will go terribly wrong, you will have huge disappointments – but you have to prepare for that, you have to expect it and be resolute and follow your own path.”

Elizabeth Crary, author of “Dealing with Disappointment: Helping Kids Cope When Things Don’t Go Their Way,” frequently counsels parents that the solution to a child’s emotional distress is not for parents to make children’s lives emotionally smooth, but to give children the life skills they need to choose happiness. In other words, teaching your child to effectively deal with disappointment will provide a foundation to handle life’s surprises for the rest of their lives.

Tips to Teach Your Child to Overcome Disappointment

Most counselors believe that disappointments and letdowns are opportunities to teach life skills that lead to resilience, self-confidence, and happiness. The following tips can help you teach your kids flexibility, resilience, and recovery:

1. Help Them Set Reasonable Expectations

Young children sometimes find the transition from a world where their every want is satisfied to the real world to be difficult. For example, if the family has planned a picnic in the park which is canceled due to rain, your child can be inconsolable, even thinking they may never go to another picnic again. Therefore, you should help him or her understand what is possible and what can’t be changed.

Dr. Tamar Chansky, author of “Freeing Your Child From Negative Thinking,” recommends the use of a “long distance story,” such as of a dog who expects to go for a walk every time the door is open and is disappointed when you are only taking the trash out. While the dog is disappointed, the child will recognize that he or she cannot walk the dog constantly, but future walks will occur and the dog will be happy when they happen.

Teaching delayed gratification and the actual reality that we don’t always get what we want is important in the maturation process. We don’t have to like it, but sometimes we have to accept it. According to Karen Stephens of the Parenting Exchange, “Children can handle that information. Especially if you share it before they encounter a big disappointment.”

2. Allow Them to Experience Disappointment

It is important to curb your natural instincts to rescue your child every time something goes wrong or they appear to be in distress. This helps children understand the difference between “big” problems, where help is warranted, and “little” problems, which they can handle on their own. Explain that disappointment is natural when things don’t go as expected, and empathize with their feelings of frustration, anger, and sadness. You may even wish to use examples from your own childhood to convey your understanding of the disappointment your child feels.

As long as they are not hurting themselves or damaging property, don’t punish children for their negative reaction – instead, explain to them that their negative feelings are not helping solve the problem, which causes the disappointment. Teach them positive ways to calm themselves, whether it is taking deep breaths, counting to 10, or drawing pictures of the event. And help them limit the time that they let bad feelings rule their actions – explain that the quicker they can gain control, the quicker they can begin to resolve their disappointment with positive actions.

disappointed child

3. Help Them Work Out Exactly Why They Are Disappointed

While acknowledging their feelings, you can help children gain perspective by asking questions and listening to their responses. Don’t attempt to “spin” the situation or minimize their feelings. Understand that, in the immediate aftermath of the triggering event, children can be overwhelmed by their emotions. Let them vent, then teach them to look beyond their immediate feelings to the underlying cause(s) of the disappointment. This process will enable them to develop tools to move past the current disappointment, as well as those likely to arise in the future.

Child psychologists recommend variations of the following questions for helping your child identify the reasons for his or her disappointment:

  • What is the worst part of it for you?
  • Why do you think it happened?
  • How long do you think it will last?
  • Is there anything you can do about it?
  • Do you think it will happen again?

All parents have a tendency to tell their children how to act, rather than listening and helping the child come to the best conclusion on his or her own. Using stories of other children in a similar situation and asking your child to propose solutions for the imaginary child is a good way to lead a healing, analytical process to gain perspective on the situation. Letting your children work out solutions on their own – without your obvious guidance – gives them confidence to handle disappointments as they appear.

4. Encourage Them to Persevere

Children learn best when hearing about the experiences of other children (even if imaginary) or their parents’ own experiences as children. The example of Alexander in the 1972 classic children’s book “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” is an excellent tool for parents to show how children everywhere have disappointments and how to work through their emotions: “I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there’s gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”

Telling your children that they will survive their disappointment today, but can achieve their goals tomorrow by learning from their mistakes and persevering, is critical. Effort and persistence are necessary to achieve most of our expectations, as illustrated in “The Tortoise and the Hare” fable.

A good process to guide children after experiencing a disappointment includes the following elements:

  • Learning That Setbacks Are Normal. Babies fall down repeatedly when learning to walk, just as learning to throw or kick a ball accurately takes time and practice.
  • Setting Realistic Goals. Six-year olds are not as coordinated nor as strong as ten-year olds; first graders don’t read as well as fifth graders.
  • Tackling Tasks By Stages. Beginning pianists don’t start with Chopin, and learning to ride a bicycle usually requires training wheels or a parent’s assistance initially. Difficult and not-so-difficult abilities and goals are not achieved overnight, but rather through a continuous progress of trial and error. Setting realistic interim goals that are achievable builds a child’s confidence.

Help your children find the wins among the losses and separate feelings from facts. The disappointment of losing a baseball game may cause them to overlook how well they played and how much fun they had – the feeling that “everyone is better than me” should be replaced with “Some people play better than me and some people play worse,” and, “If I and my team practice more, we will get better and we may win the game the next time.”

5. Comfort Them, Win or Lose

Adults sometimes forget how devastating feelings of disappointment can be for a child, especially when events are totally beyond the child’s control. Not being invited to a classmate’s birthday or missing a long-anticipated outing seems much more important to a child who has yet to experience the slings and errors of life. When disappointment stems from the actions of other people, children have a tendency to make small things big, blame themselves, and generalize their experience so that bad outcomes (disappointments) seem continuous and inevitable.

Being able to distinguish the difference between acts and people is important, and should be modeled by the parent. According to Lilian Katz, writing as the director of the Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education, children come to feel loved and accepted by being loved and accepted by the people they look up to – their parents initially, then teachers, peers, and childhood heroes. This sense of belonging is the key to a healthy self-esteem and a lifelong ability to cope with setbacks.

All parents know that children, at times, can act selfishly, carelessly, and without regard of consequences. They are human. Each parent also know that he or she (the parent) acted similarly at times during their own childhood, and even during adult life.

It is important to separate the act from the child so that children know they are always loved for who they are, not for what they do. Many parents fall into the trap of only praising successes, such as good school grades or soccer wins, while ignoring (or, even worse, punishing) a child who fails to meet the parent’s expectations. High expectations invariably increase the likelihood of failure. Children need to know that, regardless of outcome, parents will support them. That knowledge and trust is the basis for getting back in the saddle after you’ve been thrown.

disappointed child

6. Stay Calm

It is important to recognize that supporting your children is only one aspect of good parenting – the other half is showing your children through your actions and words how to respond responsibly to difficulty. Dr. Margaret Paul, writing in the Huffington Post, tells of numerous clients who tell her that they had wonderful parents who truly loved and nurtured them, but failed to teach them through their own behavior how to take personal responsibility for their own feelings and needs. The admonitory phrase used by parents for centuries, “Do as I say, not as I do,” is nothing but an excuse for parents failing to exercise self-control.

Most learning is acquired through observation and imitation. The question is not, “Will children imitate their parents?” but rather, “Which behaviors will children imitate?” Getting angry when you are disappointed, blaming others when circumstances don’t happen as planned, and withdrawing sullenly into a cocoon of detachment models actions which your children will certainly copy. If your child is to learn how to deal with disappointment, become a proper role model by showing them how you find unexpected yet positive outcomes, even when things don’t go your way.

Final Word

Every parent hopes their child will have a better, happier, and more fulfilling life than their own. We all want to protect our kids from disappointment, and often fail to recognize that disappointment and failure are survivable and can strengthen us for later trials and tribulations that we may experience. However, imparting this lesson is a valuable gift you can give your children. Former British prime minister Winston Churchill once described success as the “ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.” Learning to handle disappointment is the skill to handle and overcome failure.

What techniques do you use to help your children deal with disappointment?

Michael Lewis
Michael R. Lewis is a retired corporate executive and entrepreneur. During his 40+ year career, Lewis created and sold ten different companies ranging from oil exploration to healthcare software. He has also been a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC, a Principal of one of the larger management consulting firms in the country, and a Senior Vice President of the largest not-for-profit health insurer in the United States. Mike's articles on personal investments, business management, and the economy are available on several online publications. He's a father and grandfather, who also writes non-fiction and biographical pieces about growing up in the plains of West Texas - including The Storm.

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