By Dr Eugene Brink
Not unlike adults, kids will face all manner of disappointments in their young lives. Losing races, being snubbed by friends and not being included in sport teams leave many children crestfallen and despondent.
Although some of it will inevitably hurt them, there are mechanisms at your disposal as a parent to help them cope. And like most adversity, it can also be used for good to aid their development.
“With proper support and frequent discussions about coping with disappointment and overcoming obstacles, young children can learn how to handle life’s disappointments, big and small,” says Katie Hurley, a child psychotherapist and parenting expert.
“When children learn at an early age that they have the tools to get over a disappointing situation, they’ll be able to rely on that throughout childhood and even as adults,” says Dr Robert Brooks, coauthor of Raising Resilient Children. “If you bend over backwards to shield them from disappointment, you’re keeping them from developing some important skills.”
So, when you’re consoling your dispirited child, keep the following in mind:
“Remember that your child is coming to you because she needs empathy and understanding, not a rock-solid coping plan,” says Hurley.
Remember that coping with disappointment is difficult – even for adults. “Children respond to disappointment in different ways, and there’s no perfect response to these negative emotions. Some might immediately erupt into tantrums while others become silent, sullen or stubborn. This isn’t a skill that kids can learn in a day. And while tantrums might feel embarrassing or overwhelming in the moment, we all need to vent at times.”
Hurley recommends using empathic responses like: “I understand that this is difficult. I know you feel disappointed right now”. Give your child the time and space to cry, feel sad and soak up a hug from mom or dad. “Connection helps kids recover from adversity. Meet heated responses with calm ones to model healthy coping strategies and save the discussion for a later, calmer moment.”
Also, tell some stories of your own disappointments. This will help them see that they are not the only ones who have ever experienced disappointments and makes your other advice more relatable.
- Guide, don’t fix
This is the other side of the empathy coin. Empathy alone won’t boost their self-esteem and help them grow. “As a caregiver, you can’t be there to soothe every difficult emotion or solve every problem for your child as they grow. It’s important to act as a guide when it comes to managing setbacks instead of jumping in with the fix,” Hurley says.
Asking them about how they feel, what they wished would happen and what can be done differently next time will a long way helping them to brainstorm the problem and its possible solutions.
“Although it might take time, she’ll learn that she can make a bad situation better on her own,” says Meghan Rabbitt in Parents Magazine.
- Help them to manage expectations
Hurley says parents can’t prevent disappointment from happening. “But they can reduce distress in response to these events by helping kids learn to manage anticipation.”
She advises that we make a list to indicate hopes, possibilities and sure things. “On your big family trip, for example, you hope to go to a theme park for a day, it’s possible that you’ll visit a waterpark or museum, and you’ll definitely spend some time at the beach. This helps kids anticipate the excitement without expecting to do it all.”
- Help them find something they’re good at
Sometimes, our kids fail at something simply because it is not something they were meant to do. A failure or disappointment is often just life’s way of pointing an impressionable child in a new direction.
“Success isn’t always about ‘winning’, it’s more often about finding another path. Help them find something they can be good at that matches their interests and skills. Or figure out another way to approach the goal that takes advantage of their abilities,” says Cheryl Butler, a mom of eight and family expert.
Brooks says if a child can turn to something he knows he’s good at when disappointment strikes, it’s like an instant lift. “It can immediately change his thought pattern from, ‘Poor me, nothing ever goes my way,’ to ‘Oh well, it’ll work out next time’.”
Cheryl Butler, 6 December 2012, “5 tips to help kids handle disappointment”, https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/parenting/school-age/5-tips-to-help-kids-handle-disappointment.
Katie Hurley, 2020, “How to help kids cope with disappointment”, https://www.pbs.org/parents/thrive/how-to-help-kids-cope-with-disappointment.
Meghan Rabbitt, 2008, “That’s life: Helping kids deal with disappointment”, https://www.parents.com/toddlers-preschoolers/development/social/helping-kids-deal-with-disappointment/.