Dealing with Disappointment

Betsy Brown Braun
June 26, 2014

Growing up can be really tough. There are many peaks that children must scale on the pathway to adulthood. One of the most challenging of those is learning to tolerate disappointment. What a climb that one is, not only because it is hard for our kids, but it is downright painful for us, the parents. Living with your child's sadness tugs at your heart strings; it just plain aches.

But how is your child going to learn to weather the ups and downs that life throws his way, if he's never been allowed to climb that mountain? Life is full of disappointments. In the course of a typical childhood there are zillions of disappointments, big ones and little ones, from getting the green gumball instead of the red one, to not winning the class election.

Most adults have experienced enough disappointments to know that life goes on after disappointment; people do recover.  Yet most parents would just as soon spare their child as much disappointment as possible. And why not? We want to protect our children from unhappiness.

And so we try to avoid or erase a disappointment. We give the child another nickel and another until that red gumball falls into the chute. We quickly make another playdate with a different friend. We buy that toy we know isn't appropriate. And for a few minutes we have managed to fend off the demon disappointment.

But what have we really done? We may have avoided the outburst or tantrum, but we have also deprived the child of the opportunity to learn to tolerate disappointment. We have cheated him out of a chance to learn that he can actually handle these small disappointments, that he can weather the storm. Knowing that you have survived in the past goes a long way in learning to tolerate future disappointments.

Helping our children to build a tolerance for disappointment certainly doesn't mean that we should go out of our way to thwart their desires; life will offer plenty of those opportunities without our help. It does mean that we can become conscious of the ways in which we are avoiding the very thing which may in fact be a strong learning opportunity.

When your child is confronted with a disappointment:

  1. Acknowledge his feelings of disappointment without judgment, and don't insist that he be cheerful when he really isn't.
  2. Don't discount his feelings by trying to get him to "get over it."  This skill not only requires practice, but it requires the knowledge that he can "get over it" that only experience brings.
  3. Sympathize by saying that you know that disappointments make people feel sad and sometimes even angry, and help him to find appropriate ways to deal with those feelings.
  4. Assure him that he won't feel this way forever, that soon he will feel better.
  5. Later when the storm has passed, point out the he did  "get over it" and how proud he must feel.
  6. Remember, the strength that you show in making decisions that might cause disappointments, helps children to feel safe knowing that you are in charge.

Accepting disappointments is never easy for a child, but, as the saying posted in my office goes, "The surest way to make life difficult for your child, is to make it too easy for him."

Originally published in 2009.

From the Parents

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