How to Help Kids Deal with Disappointment
So much of life is about looking forward to things, and a change of plans can hit children especially hard. But kids actually benefit from feeling disappointed, especially when you teach them how to bounce back.
Whether it's a trip to the playground that gets ruined by rain or there are no more chocolate sprinkles at the ice cream shop, life is full of little and big disappointments. And as much as we'd like to spare our kids from letdowns, we can't—and that's a good thing. "When children learn at an early age that they have the tools to get over a disappointing situation, they'll be able to rely on that throughout childhood and even as adults," says Robert Brooks, PhD, coauthor of Raising Resilient Children. "If you bend over backwards to shield them from disappointment, you're keeping them from developing some important skills."
That's not to say you shouldn't lend a hand. "If you help a child learn to ask for realistic support, lean on others, communicate well, and stay optimistic, you're assisting that child to handle what life throws at him," says Dr. Brooks. Here are some expert-approved tips for helping your child manage disappointment.
How Does Your Child React to Disappointment?
The most effective approach to managing disappointment: Tailor your tactics to how your child currently reacts when a curveball comes his way.
The Reaction: Minor Problems Cause Big Tantrums
Would your child burst into tears if you ran out of his favorite brand of apple juice? Or throw himself on the floor if another kid were playing with his favorite Thomas train? If the tiniest disruptions spell big-time trouble or if your child dwells on a disappointment for hours, then you have to begin with the basics.
- Teach your child what can and can't be changed. He may not understand that the problem is out of your control or that a tantrum won't get him what he wants. Validate his distress by saying, "I know you're upset," and then discuss more effective solutions.
- Expose your preschooler to different activities until he finds one that he really enjoys—and that you could see him mastering. If a child can turn to something he knows he's good at when the chips are down, it's like an instant ego boost, says Dr. Brooks. "It can immediately change his thought pattern from, 'Poor me, nothing ever goes my way,' to 'Oh well, it'll work out next time.'"
- Don't punish your child for a negative reaction to disappointment, especially if she's prone to tears. While that can be hard, remind yourself of the times you've needed to vent or have a good cry to get through a rough situation.
The Reaction: Your Child Sulks from Disappointment
Your child still gets upset easily, but it doesn't progress to a full-blown tantrum. In other words: She's halfway there. To continue to foster resilience, take these steps.
- Give your child a choice when the unexpected happens. "Kids this age feel like they have even less control over their life than usual when something doesn't go their way," says Dr. Brooks. "But giving a child an opportunity to make a decision can be empowering and can turn the situation around." For example, you can say, "We can't go to the toy store now, but what toy would you like to play with?" or "Would you like to go tomorrow morning or afternoon?"
- Find ways for your little one to help others. Volunteer together at your local nursing home, or let her lend a hand when you prepare dinner—even though it might mean more of a mess for you. Selfless acts, even at this young age, start to give children a chance to put their own problems in perspective and help them feel they've made a positive difference—an important attitude related to resilience.
- Instead of rushing to "fix" a problem, help your child solve it herself, whether it's a broken toy or a fight over the bigger shovel. Although it might take time, she'll learn that she can make a bad situation better on her own.
Helping Your Kid Grow More Tolerant
Maybe your kid takes most setbacks in stride and seems to realize that when disappointment strikes, it's not necessarily someone's fault. So if he isn't tall enough to ride the cool-looking roller coaster, he immediately asks to go on a different ride. While experts agree that your little one might have been born with a better ability to function well in the face of adversity, they also say it's likely you've had something to do with it. Give yourself a pat on the back, then help him boost bounce-back skills even more.
Empathize with your child's disappointments. For example, if a playdate gets canceled, tell him about how upset you were when a friend canceled on you. He'll see that it's okay to feel bummed about unexpected situations.
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Discuss it. Talk about what your child was most excited about, and what she imagined it would be like, suggests Parents advisor Timothy L. Verduin, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health. “It may seem perilous to lean into the pain, but as long you’re supportive and caring, giving sad moods enough space generally lets them run themselves out.”
Create a network of other people in your child's life—not just you and your spouse—whom she can turn to in rough times. Studies show that the most resilient kids have a way of drawing in other people to help them.
Use disappointments as opportunities to teach a lesson. “Remind him that you’ve dealt with uncertainty as a family before, and name some examples, and say you know you will find a way not just to get through this experience but to have moments of fun, joy, growth, and meaning together," says Dr. Verduin.
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What Not to Say When Your Kid Is Disappointed
You mean well, sure. But when your child cries, throws a tantrum, or talks back, it's easy to say the wrong thing. Richard Lerner, PhD, director of Tufts University's Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development, tells you how to get your foot out of your mouth.
DON'T SAY: "You're acting like a baby."
Instead, relating to your child lets him know it's normal to feel upset, which will make letdowns feel less scary over time. Say "It's okay to feel disappointed. I'd be really upset in this situation too."
DON'T SAY: "Let's do this instead."
A better response: "Do you have any ideas for what we can do instead?" Asking the right questions to help a child come up with her own solution not only helps her feel better in the moment but also shows her that she can find ways—on her own—to make a bad situation better.
DON'T SAY: "It's not a big deal."
Odds are the disappointment is a big deal to your child, and dismissing it as unimportant conveys that you don't know what really matters to him. Try saying, "I know this is hard for you" or "Yeah, I can see that. I never went through something like this when I was in school, but it seems like it’s been a bummer.”