How to Teach Kids to Better Manage Life’s Disappointments
Her brother ate the last two Oreos instead of saving one for her. Dad said no more TV right before bedtime. He tested positive COVID at the last minute and can’t take a planned spring break trip. A broken arm means baseball season is over until next year. Disappointment can take infinite forms for a kid. Though you can’t spare them from disappointment, you can teach them how to handle it so they bounce back stronger as they get older.
Kids today may have more experience with disappointment than prior cohorts considering the ways in which the pandemic canceled or fundamentally altered two years of their childhood. Even with all that experience, all kids—from toddlers to teens—still need their parents’ help to learn skills to process their emotions.
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“It’s OK to be disappointed, and it is not your job as a parent to make sure your child is never disappointed,” said therapist Lynn Lyons on her podcast Flusterclux. She gave tips for parents to help children process disappointment while curbing annoying behaviors like blaming, whining, and sulking.
What to do when your kid is disappointed
First, start by empathizing. Try saying one of these validating phrases:
“I understand how you feel.”
“I get that this is disappointing.”
“If I were you, I would feel disappointed too.”
Fill your back pocket with these go-to phrases to help kids put words to their feelings and to show you understand and support them even when they have negative feelings.
You should also let them have their emotions while still acknowledging the reality of the situation. Lyons suggests saying, “I know you’re disappointed, and the fact remains that we can’t go to the waterpark in a thunderstorm.”
After you empathize and validate their feelings, turn to problem-solving. This is not you solving the problem by vanquishing disappointment. Instead, collaborate with your kid to ask what they could do instead. What could they do differently to avoid this disappointment next time? What are reasonable expectations to have when you can’t control everything?
Your little kid might have picked up a habit of whining or sulking when they don’t get what they want. Now is the time to correct that behavior rather than reinforcing it by giving in.
“Whining is a learned behavior. And one of the reasons kids whine is because it is really effective,” Lyons said. Giving in to whining may get you out of a tough parenting moment, but it will backfire in the long run.
“That’s when you are going to be teaching them how to get you to take over their feelings, how to get you to step in and do what they want you to do to make them feel better,” Lyons said. “You are a support, but you cannot step in to make their feelings go away. That’s not your job, and it’s not healthy for them.”
Instead of getting annoyed, confront the behavior by saying, “You are disappointed, and you are whining to get me to change the situation. That behavior is not going to change the outcome.” Ask the child to help you think of alternative activities or redirect them to something that they usually find fulfilling. (For example, a recent study found that drawing improved children’s moods after disappointment.)
You can also teach them some self-soothing skills that can calm disappointment in place of whining.
What you shouldn’t do when your kid is disappointed
Don’t minimize or try to talk them out of disappointment, and don’t encourage your child to put on a happy face or conceal their disappointment. A 2020 study found that children who put on a happy face instead of expressing disappointment experienced impaired cognitive performance afterward because using self-control to hide disappointment leads to “ego depletion.”
“The ability to tolerate when things don’t go your way is a really really important skill,” Lyons said.
Don’t bribe or otherwise try to alleviate their disappointment with treats and rewards, and be sure to be mindful of your own reaction to disappointment. Do you have adult tantrums, sulk, blame, or whine? Try to model handling disappointment by acknowledging how you feel, looking for solutions, and managing expectations so you can recover and move on.
Special cases for dealing with disappointment
Lyons said in her experience as a therapist, people (including children) with anxiety can have a tougher time dealing with disappointment because they tend to be rigid. Consider whether anxiety might be the root of the problem if disappointment has become a roadblock your child just can’t get past.
Also, it is normal for very small children (up to school age) to react to disappointment with a tantrum. If you are dealing with a disappointed toddler, simplify your reaction. Use words to connect their big feelings to not getting what they wanted to help them learn emotional literacy. Stand by to offer comfort and a hug as the tantrum subsides.
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