Disappointment can be like a tidal wave of emotions for your kids. Image this scenario:
The van is packed, and you’re about ready to head out the door. Suddenly, you hear thunder in the distance. No! It can’t be! You checked the weather, and it wasn’t supposed to rain for a few more hours. But minutes later, the rain is pouring down outside.
Three children stare at you. “When are we going to the beach, mom?”
Bracing yourself, you cautiously say, “Well…it’s raining…we can’t go to the beach today.”
In an instant, one child is crying and flopping around on the ground; another child is throwing things, kicking you and yelling; and a third is pouting, staring out the window.
Three disappointed kids.
How to Help Your Child When They Are Disappointed
Connect with Empathy & Notice your Message
For children, even something that seems little — like someone else eating the last cookie — can open a floodgate of unexpected feelings. Disappointment!
Suddenly, they are met with the challenge of managing a bunch of feelings at the same time — frustration, anger, confusion, sadness — while making sense of their unmet expectations. This is a lot to expect of a child.
- When we say, “It’s no big deal,” we send the message: “Your feelings don’t matter.”
- When we throw our hands up and give in, we send the message: “Your disappointment is too much for me to handle.”
- When we distract our child from the disappointing event, we send the message: “Disappointment is uncomfortable and should be avoided at all costs.”
Alternatively, when you connect with empathy, you send the message: “It’s hard to feel disappointed. I am here with you as you feel this uncomfortable feeling, and we’ll get through it together.”
Say This, Not That
Instead of forcing your child to stuff their feelings or numb their emotions by giving in, try these alternative phrases:
Instead of: “Get over it.”
Try: “I can tell you’re disappointed. I was hoping to go to the beach today too.”
Instead of: “Fine, if you’re going to throw a fit, you can have the toy.”
Try: “I know you really wanted that toy. It’s so hard when we cannot get what we want.”
Instead of: “Oh, your balloon popped. Here, have an ice cream.”
Try: “How sad! You didn’t get to play with that balloon very long, did you?”
Instead of: “Don’t ask me again!”
Try: “I know you’re disappointed. You really wish I would change my mind.”
Instead of: “If you hit me one more time, you’re going in a time-out!”
Try: “You can be angry about my decision, but I will not let you hurt others.”
Instead of: “It’s time to go. Don’t make me count to three!”
Try: “You wish we could stay here longer. It’s hard to leave fun places.”
Instead of: “You’re ruining the day for our whole family!”
Try: “You still seem really disappointed that the party was canceled. Do you need a hug?”
Check Your Triggers
Responding with empathy may seem like a great idea in theory, but you might find it really difficult to put into practice.
Usually, this means you are being “triggered.” Instead of being able to see your child’s struggle, you respond to something internal — a thought about yourself, your child or the situation.
Take some time to think about why it is hard for you to let your child feel disappointed. Here are some examples:
- I feel like my kids take advantage of me.
- I don’t feel appreciated.
- I feel powerless.
- I don’t know any other way to respond.
- My own parents never let me show disappointment.
- I feel uncomfortable when my kids are upset.
- I don’t know how to comfort my kids.
- My spouse/co-parent gives them everything they want; now they expect it from me.
- I’m frustrated that I let this get so out of control.
- I don’t know how to handle my own disappointment.
Once you’ve identified one or two triggers, you can start to work through them — on your own, with a trusted friend, or a mental health professional. Getting these triggers out of the way will help you respond empathetically to your child when they are feeling disappointed.
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