Helping kids manage disappointment

If there was some kind of higher learning or university course in parenting, I think you might have to spend a good chunk of it learning how to read between the lines. Digging a bit deeper, looking beyond the behaviour as to what’s going on inside that little heart and mind would have to be a big part of learning how to do this job well.

We used to be kids ourselves but it’s so hard, once our adult perspectives have settled themselves in and taken over our brains, to see things how they see them. This causes us so much grief when our children talk in riddles or code, raving on about a lost shoelace or a mean look from their sister, a not-big-enough serving of macaroni cheese, or in the case of a family I spoke to recently, a sausage cut at entirely the wrong angle. Their poor wee boy was beside himself over it. We see the tantrums, the defiance, the anger and sadness, because that’s what’s on the surface. It seems so out of proportion to the situation so we get frustrated with them, and try to either fix the problem or wash our hands of it in anger. Both are different methods with the same aim – make the pain stop! But the problem is of course, it’s not actually about the sausage.

So when we focus only on the sausage, we haven’t got a hope of really making things better. What’s actually going on? Maybe that was the 15th time today that your little guy felt like someone didn’t listen to what he wanted before they went ahead and did it their way. Maybe he had built up an expectation of how his dinner would look on the plate and he was just too tired or hungry to cope with the mental adjustment he needed to make when it looked different. Maybe he thought he was capable of cutting his own sausage and he felt disregarded or babied by having it cut for him. If you really want to dig even deeper – what’s underneath all of these? And underneath almost every kind of outburst or meltdown our children have? Disappointment. Our kids explode in their strange or illogical-on-the-outside frenzies because they are still learning to cope with disappointment. We can help them with that, when we don’t get stuck on the surface.

First, do a bit of background work by helping them to understand that disappointment is a natural and inevitable part of everyone’s life. Be real about the setbacks you face, let them see you wobble a little bit but pick yourself up again. Don’t be tempted to provide a life of plastic perfection for them either. A little bit of distraction is fine for small children when they start to wind themselves up over an upset, but don’t rush to hide or mask the painful feelings that sit alongside disappointment as children get older. Acknowledging the difficulty they face is a huge part of being able to communicate empathy and genuine concern. Rushing past the hard stuff (even if it’s only because we can’t bear to see them in pain) risks sending the message that we don’t care or truly get what’s going on for them.

Providing labels for those tough feelings can be helpful – but pick your moment! A friend and I had to chuckle once when she helpfully gave her son a label for his feeling, just a moment too late. “You’re feeling very disappointed,” she offered, “No, I’m angry!” he roared. Aim to meet them where they’re at, say what you see without judgement or punishment, and offer to sit with them while it passes through. Don’t be tempted to fix or discipline the problem while they are still very upset. Instead teach them that if we’re patient, the storm will pass, and then we will be able to think and talk a bit more clearly about solutions. Show them what you do to calm yourself down, perhaps by breathing deeply, stretching, holding yourself in a tight hug, or getting a cool drink of water. Encourage them to try a few things and find what works for them.

Occasionally, get the family focused on how important it is to handle our frustrations and let-downs. Talk about it at mealtimes, or actively reward and comment favourably on steps in the right direction. If someone who usually struggles managed to hold their temper when the game changed unexpectedly, don’t let the moment pass. Congratulate them on using whatever strategy they employed to keep their cool. Help their insight grow by asking them what they did and how it worked.

And finally, don’t be afraid to set small challenges for your child that will develop their ability to handle disappointment. Yes, you could rush to get the preferred cup from the dishwasher, or you could ask them to be flexible, to let go of the first preference because unfortunately it isn’t available right now. Budget in a bit of extra time and energy to deal with the backlash calmly – but know that you’re doing a good thing. It’s much harder to cope with the big upsets if we haven’t had to live through the small ones first.

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Andrea Stringer

Andrea is a former Family Coach at The Parenting Place. Her background is in psychology and she has worked with both young people and their families for a number of years.

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