Whether it’s a cancelled play date, an ice cream cone that falls on the ground, a scoreless soccer game, or a broken promise due to unforeseen circumstances, life is full of disappointments of varying sizes. While the gut instinct of the caring parent might very well be to sweep the disappointment out of the way by offering a quick solution, parents can’t always protect their kids from letdowns. And that’s okay.
When children learn that they have what it takes to work through the difficult feelings caused by disappointing situations, they build resilience and coping skills. This empowers them to recover from setbacks, solve problems independently, and figure out how to process negative emotions. Disappointment, as it turns out, can be a valuable teaching tool when it comes to emotional development.
That’s not to say that teaching kids to handle disappointment is easy. Or that kids can simply work through disappointment on their own. 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.
Try these tips to help your child learn to handle disappointments with ease.
We all experience disappointment at times and we tend to reach for our most trusted resources when we do. Remember that your child is coming to you because she needs empathy and understanding, not a rock-solid coping plan.
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. It’s important to remember that coping with disappointment is even difficult for adults at times. 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.
Use 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. What your child needs most in the heat of the moment is empathy and understanding. You can review positive ways to handle disappointment after your child recovers from the disappointing event.
Be a guide, not a fixer.
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.
The next time your child comes to you for help with a disappointment, try asking a few questions that empower him to solve the problem:
- How did it feel when that happened?
- What did you wish would happen?
- What can be done differently the next time?
This helps your child brainstorm the problem and think through possible solutions while you comfort him. And to think about how to turn the problem around into something good.
Help your child manage expectations.
It’s natural to build excitement for something like a family trip by talking about all of the wonderful things that might happen, but the word “might” is very important. Young children have a tendency to engage in all-or-nothing thinking. When parents say, “A stop at a theme park might be fun,” young children hear: “We’re going to a park and it will be great!” When that doesn’t happen, or isn’t so great due to hot weather and long lines, it can be a huge disappointment.
Kids strikeout in baseball, fall off their bikes, and sometimes friendships don’t work out. Parents can’t prevent disappointing things from happening, but they can reduce distress in response to these events by helping kids learn to manage anticipation.
Try this: 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.
Practice delayed gratification.
In a world that thrives on instant gratification, it can be difficult for kids to understand that many things require time and practice. A child can’t expect to sit down at the piano for the very first time and play a masterpiece without mistakes. That’s not how life works. The same goes for sports, puzzles, games, art and just about everything else.
Routines are helpful when it comes to helping kids learn to delay gratification. Establishing a rule where kids have thirty minutes of downtime before heading to the park to meet friends after school teaches kids to slow down and wait instead of running from activity to activity. Practicing goal setting as a family is another useful strategy. If your child struggles with jigsaw puzzles because it’s difficult to see the big picture through all of the pieces, you can help by working on one corner at a time and setting timers to help your child remember to take breaks.
Teach self-calming skills.
Learning how to process uncomfortable emotions plays an integral role in coping with disappointment. When parents model and teach self-calming skills, kids learn that they can get through hard things.
All kids are different and have different needs when it comes to calming down, but try some of these to get started:
- Breathe the rainbow — practice deep breathing while thinking about favorite things for each color of the rainbow
- Use art to work through feelings — coloring, drawing and molding clay can all be relaxing
- Listen to soft music
- Read or ask a parent to read to you
- Get outside to play
- Snuggle up with a stuffed animal and a few favorite toys
It takes time to develop the skills to cope with disappointment. Be patient when your child has big reactions to seemingly small events. Sometimes a good venting helps kids work through their emotions so that they can think more rationally about the disappointing event and what they can do to recover.