Finding the right words when children are disappointed isn’t always easy. I’ve learned over the years that although it is hard to see our children feeling upset, distracting, reasoning, lecturing or otherwise trying to fix their feelings usually just backfires. So how do we find the right words to say when children are disappointed? The words that express understanding, empathy, that keep us connected and don’t fix, lecture or distract?
“I believe you” I said to my son the other afternoon.
As my words met his disappointment, I saw his face relax into a small smile. It wasn’t happiness but a smile that showed acceptance and acknowledgement that I had paid attention. I had listened, and although I wasn’t giving into my sons’ request, just three words made it safe for him to feel his disappointment and let it go.
“I really wanted to… I’m, I’m, well, really disappointed.” He offered.
“I believe you.” I had offered in return.
I’d love to say that our exchange was about something profound or delicate, (which in a way it was because all parenting moments seem to be) but not really. We were just dealing with a difference of opinions about taking candy to school. His school doesn’t allow it. My son had thought that putting two pieces of candy in his bag and promising to leave it alone until school was over was a an acceptable way to bend the rules. Being very logical and excellent at keeping his word, I knew that his plan, in his mind, was rock solid. Solid or not, I wasn’t ready to support breaking the school rules and I was setting a limit “I understand your plan and my answer is no.” I had said.
To be completely honest, the rebel in me wanted to let him take the candy, after all, what’s the big deal, it’s two pieces of candy and I knew I could trust him to keep his word. Plus, if he did not keep his word and “got caught” in school, well, that would be his experience to deal with and learn from. The responsible mama in me on the other hand did not want to set a precedent of breaking school rules. I’ll admit that asking critical questions and being willing to break rules for a good cause definitely has it’s time and place, yet, this wasn’t it.
Sometimes, when my son and I disagree we also disconnect. I’ve worked on this over the years, but I still get it wrong at times. In moments like this, he has his ideas and I have mine. My son focuses on his logical solutions and has an enviable talent for living in the moment. I tend to focus far, far ahead into the future, thinking about the “what ifs” and sometimes I let fear take over.
This time, my resolve to not disconnect while setting the limit stuck.
This time I wanted to accept his disappointment for what it was.
This time, I found the right words.
Three simple words in the right moment.
My son didn’t need a lecture about the school rules and his responsibility. My son did not need to negotiate or plead. My son needed, like most of us need in such circumstances when we find ourselves in a power struggle or faced with a limit we dislike, to feel understood. So I simply said: I believe you.
As parents, we usually cannot and should not fix disappointment for our children. We often cannot change the rules. We can however believe that our children have real feelings, both positive and negative, and a right to have these feelings. We can believe that our children have the capacity to overcome their disappointments and struggles.
We can believe that the words we use with our children in such moments matter. We can believe that setting a limit can be done so with kindness and respect. We can believe that disappointment is natural, normal and acceptable and not something we have to control or eliminate.
Finding the right words isn’t always easy but the simple power of saying “I believe you” when our children are disappointed with our decision usually fits. It fits because when we believe in our children, they can feel well, understood, cared for and listened too. Regardless if the disappointment is about a purple cup, a piece of candy or not staying awake late on a school night, validating our children’s feelings gives them space to face frustration and disappointment and then get through those moments feeling capable and confident.
- I believe you.
- I see you are disappointed.
- I think I understand.
- You wish it could be different.
Those are the words I want to use when my children are disappointed. What about you, how do you handle your child’s disappointment? Is it challenging, do you feel responsible, a need to fix it?
Peace & Be Well,