Helping Your Child Through Disappointment

Helping Your Child Through Disappointment

Disappointment can be like a tidal wave of emotions for your kids. Image this scenario:helping disappointed child

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.

Now what?

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.”

happy child positive parenting

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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Nicole is a mom to 3 young girls, a Parent Coach, and Licensed Therapist in St. Louis, Missouri. She is the author of *Positive Parenting for Imperfect Families*. Nicole helps parents connect with their children, feel confident in their parenting, and find positive alternatives to punishment. Learn about online Parent Coaching and read parenting tips on her blog, ImperfectFamilies. Sign up for Nicole's newsletter here.

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10 Responses to Helping Your Child Through Disappointment

  1. So well said! I’m glad I do most of these. I never did get the whole distraction thing. When we do that, we teach our kids to avoid certain emotions instead of learning how to cope with them. Fantastic post.

  2. Over coming fear, failure and other emotions are important to the proper and necessary growth of a child.

    The old saying – what do you do when life gives you lemons? You make lemon aid.

  3. Quite curious: what do you do when you end up saying for the 50th time (no exaggeration there, I counted) one of those alternative sentences (not exactly the same 50 times in a row, of course, but rather 50 attempts at helping them feel it and then let it go) and… still nothing changed?

    I think there is some time for feeling the disappointment and then some time for letting it go and focusing on something else, without this “distraction” meaning that the message sent is to avoid disappointment at all costs (on a different note: the message sent and the message received are at best guessed rather than known, so when you say so surely what message they get, I start wondering how exactly have you proved that to yourself). I am open to a different perspective on all of this, hence my question and I look forward to an interesting answer.

  4. Hi there,
    sometimes children will hold on to their upsets or frustrations a while longer than what we might, but really, it’s important to allow children to fully feel their feelings, even the negative ones. Would it be helpful to just allow some of those feelings to exists? Would you be open to rather than saying something 50 times, maybe just acknowledging, “this is really hard for you.” It may just be all they need, and the space to be allowed to feel what they need to feel fully. Is it uncomfortable for you to see them still upset and holding on to the problem? Maybe give yourself permission to disagree but your child permission to feel the disappointment anyways? Would you be open to that?
    thank you for sharing your questions.

  5. Hi Nina, yes, I agree, even if it may feel uncomfortable, it’s really important to allow all those feelings to have space. Thank you so much for sharing that.

  6. Perhaps I did not explain it clearly, let me try again: I acknowledge it 50 (or more) times: “this is really hard for you”, “you don’t like it and that’s fine”, “I understand that you don’t like/don’t want this”, “I know you would prefer it that way”, “this must be quite difficult” etc. And on and on and on and on. The problem is not that it is hard (of course it is, but usually things worth doing are hard, so no surprise there), but rather that it does not seem to actually help in any way. Hence, I stopped doing that and I have a much simpler approach which works wonders: a big hug, one single acknowledgement (“I know it’s annoying/hard/difficult/not what you wanted/expected”) followed by an opportunity to learn something and move on (“but it’s ok, we can learn X from it and next time try to do something different, what do you think?”). Oh, and he’s 2.5 yo, just in case that makes any difference.

    And to be honest, I personally also never benefited from this kind of approach: when I am upset/disappointed/broken-hearted/tired the last (LAST) thing I need is someone telling me about how hard it must be for me and all that. What I need is rather a very simple set of things: a meaning to that situation, a lesson to learn for next time and then a bit of help perhaps to move on. It doesn’t mean I don’t live my disappointment to the full (oh, boy, I almost wish I didn’t do that) – it just means that don’t get stuck in it (I know that too and it can go on for …ahem, years).

  7. This is such a helpful post. I love the examples – they make it so clear what you can say in different situations to show empathy to our kids. I’m working on this myself and have definitely found some triggers over the 3 years of my son’s life and am working hard to move through them. It’s amazing how much we learn about ourselves through our children. I’ll be sharing this post for sure!

  8. What do you say after you have acknowledged their feelings and they are still upset? That’s the part I always get hung up on and eventually frustrated about. Thank you!

  9. Hi Meri, thanks for sharing your experience. I hear you that it can be difficult to sit with or witness a child’s frustrations. It’s quite normal to want the feelings to just pass. Or to expect or want for the child to feel better once we have acknowledged them (or even given them what seems to be sufficient time to process). But emotions are tricky and much like we can’t always choose to feel a specif way, children often need time to come full circle. There is a *feel —— process ( which might be any or more of the following: cry, complain, pout, talk, shut down, rage, scream, withdrawl, cling) —– feel differently* cycle that needs to happen. Along side that cycle is our presence and support for those feelings that might go a bit like this * recognizing – validating – supporting(waiting…waiting…waiting) – seeing child move on.* Depending on the situation, sitting and processing can take a while. If you are feeling frustrated, it might be worthwhile to ask yourself why you are bothered by your child’s frustration. For some parents, seeing their child frustrated brings up feelings of guilt, defeat, protection, sadness…whatever it might be, acknowledging what you are feeling, what you want to do for your own self can be helpful too.

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