5 Times Kids Will (or Should!) Experience Disappointment

We can't protect our kids from all of life's ups and downs, and we shouldn't always try. Here's why.
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As parents, we want to protect our kids from everything bad in the world, but that's hardly realistic. Over time, our little ones are going to get their share of scratches and scrapes—and heartaches. While those emotional cuts can be particularly painful for us to witness, they're an important part of growing up.

"Why can't we just create a perfectly safe environment, a cocoon, until our kids are ready to leave home?" says Sam Goldstein, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in children and co-author of Raising Resilient Children. "Because you have to experience both the ups and downs to develop a sense of self, to have islands of confidence, to have things you believe you're good at and use to carry you along. You can't only have success."

Of course, that's not to say you shouldn't try to protect your kids, especially when they're very young. This "prosthetic environment" we create, as Dr. Goldstein calls it, shields younger children from potentially dangerous experiences. But between ages 5 and 8, most children are ready to manage new challenges and should have the opportunity to try activities where success isn't necessarily guaranteed, he says.

Your kid's temperament plays a role in how she'll experience disappointment, but there are ways you can better prepare her to cope with life's inevitable low points. Read on for five typical situations in which your school-aged child will likely experience disappointment, and ways to offer your support.

Life deals a bad hand. 

Sometimes the world just doesn't seem to be on your kid's side. Maybe the movie is already sold out when your family gets to the theater, her awesome outdoor birthday party gets rained out, or a favorite team loses the big game. And it hurts—bad.

Jen D., a mom of three, saw this firsthand when her 8-year-old son, Gabe, needed consoling after their hometown Seattle Seahawks lost in the final seconds of the Super Bowl. "His team fought so hard, and he really thought they were going to win," she says. "I helped him get over his disappointment by reminding him that part of loving a team is supporting them through both their winning and their losing. And this loss will only make them come back stronger the next season."

Jen's strategy is music to Dr. Goldstein's ears. He applauded how she helped her son gain perspective about the loss and even see it as an opportunity for the team to improve for next year. "I suggest that parents point out that there is always something to be learned from a mistake, a disappointment, or a failed effort," he adds. 

Someone important lets her down. 

When your daughter's best friend takes someone else on a family vacation, or your son's super-cool but unreliable uncle flakes on taking him to the zoo, your kid is likely to be upset. As difficult as it may be, let him feel the pain. "Don't be too quick to talk them out of it," Dr. Goldstein advises. "When the child is distressed, we're quick to say, 'You're a good kid and you'll find other friends,' as opposed to saying, 'I can see that really hurts you, and I can see you really feel badly about that.'"

In fact, by acknowledging your kid's emotions, you help open up a conversation about the situation and possible solutions. "Ask them, 'What do you want to do with that feeling?'" Dr. Goldstein suggests. If your child digs in deep, saying she won't invite her BFF to tag along on her next outing, you can follow up with an open-ended question, like "Is that really what you want to do?" If she has a change of heart later, help her navigate the situation by asking what she would like to say when inviting the friend.

He didn't try hard enough—and it shows. 

Kids know they should always try their best. Sometimes, though, they expect to get positive results without putting in the effort. Whether it's making silly mistakes because they rushed through homework, or insisting their lackluster tooth-brushing technique will pass muster at the dentist, children are likely to be lackadaisical at times.

Dr. Goldstein's advice? Give them a chance to learn the hard knocks firsthand. "Most of the time, we say, 'Here, let me help you because I've learned a better way, so I can save you the grief of learning,'" he explains. "I think it's a well-meant effort, but in our research, we've learned it doesn't work." Neither does nagging your child into perfection. In fact, both solutions rob him of the chance to learn from his mistakes and figure out how to deal with challenges and adversity.

Instead, Dr. Goldstein says to give your kid the freedom to run his own experiment. Allow him to brush his teeth his way or turn in poorly done assignments, and then experience the real-world consequences of his effort (or lack thereof). Of course, put in safeguards when needed—for example, moving up his dental check-ups to prevent cavities from forming, or discouraging slacking off before an important test.

She tried her best but still failed. 

Is your little slugger determined to make the baseball team? Does your pint-size diva have her sights set on the lead in the school play? No matter how hard they practice, there's a chance they might not get what they want.

When Ohio mom Karmi H.'s daughter Nina was 7, she came home from school disappointed because she wasn't selected as Student of the Month. "She cried as she restated to us all the qualifications she exemplified that were required to receive the award," Karmi says. "I talked to her about how many other kids also show those qualities, too. I helped her see that rather than feel sad, she could be happy for the individual who was Student of the Month, because if she had been the one chosen, she would appreciate others being happy for her success."

Helping your children be happy for the "winner," instead of sad for themselves, can help reframe her disappointment in a positive way. It also helps if you help prepare him in advance for a potentially negative outcome. "Say, 'What's our backup plan if you don't make the team? Let's see if we have a couple of backup plans, because I think you doing something like this is a good idea,'" Dr. Goldstein suggests.

He's disappointed in himself. 

Even as adults, it can be hard not to beat ourselves up when we make a mistake. But missing a step during a dance recital or striking out in a Little League game can be a major confidence-destroyer for your child, which is why Dr. Goldstein recommends leading by example. If you're hard on yourself when you accidentally burn dinner or miss a work deadline, you're sending the message that making mistakes is not okay. Instead, show your kids how you forgive yourself, learn from it, and move on. 

Also, emphasize that making mistakes is a normal, important part of learning. "[Children] who have an appreciation for who they are are able to learn from their experiences [and] see a mistake as an opportunity to learn and to plan to do something different the next time," Dr. Goldstein says.

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