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.

Disappointed Girl
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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, Ph.D., co-author of Raising Resilient Children. "If you bend over backward 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 [them]," says Dr. Brooks.

The most effective approach to helping kids manage disappointment is to tailor your tactics to how your child currently reacts when a curveball comes their way. Here are some expert-approved tips for helping your child manage disappointment.

When Minor Problems Cause Big Tantrums

Would your child burst into tears if you ran out of their favorite brand of apple juice? Or throw themselves on the floor if another kid were playing with their favorite toy? 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.

Here are strategies to help your child deal with disappointment without tantrums.

Explain and validate

Teach your child what can and can't be changed. They may not understand that the problem is out of your control or that a tantrum won't get them what they want. Validate their distress by saying, "I know you're upset," and then discuss more effective solutions.

Find what your child is really good at

Expose your preschooler to different activities until they find one they really enjoy—and you could see them mastering it. If a child can turn to something they know they're good at when the chips are down, it's like an instant ego boost, says Dr. Brooks. "It can immediately change [their] thought pattern from, 'Poor me, nothing ever goes my way,' to 'Oh well, it'll work out next time.'"

Don't use punishment

Don't punish your child for an adverse reaction to disappointment, especially if they're 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.

Model handling disappointment well

Kids learn a lot by watching their parents. So try and handle your own disappointments in the manner that you would want them to. And if you handle it by telling yourself coping statements like, "It's OK; it's not worth getting upset about," say them out loud so your kid can see what tools you are using and hopefully learn from them.

When Your Child Sulks From Disappointment

Perhaps your child still gets upset easily, but it doesn't progress to a full-blown tantrum. In other words: Your child is halfway there. To continue to foster resilience, take these steps.

Offer choices

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?"

Encourage your child to be a helper

Find ways for your little one to help others. Volunteer together at your local nursing home, or let your child 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.

Teach your child problem solving skills

Instead of rushing to "fix" a problem, help your child solve it themselves, whether it's a broken toy or a fight over the bigger shovel. Although it might take time, they'll learn that they can make a bad situation better on their own.

Teach them coping skills

Coping with disappointment is a skill, and for many kids it doesn't come naturally—it's something that needs to be learned. Teaching these skills in advance of a situation can be helpful. For example, before you go into the ice cream store that may not have sprinkles or before they play a game where they might not win, have your child practice what to do if they are disappointed, so it's fresh in their mind. That can include teaching your child to take a deep breath and tell themselves, "It's OK; I can't always get my way" or "It's OK; I will just do something else."

When Your Child Takes Setbacks in Stride

Maybe your kid already takes most setbacks in stride and seems to realize that it's not necessarily someone's fault when disappointment strikes. So if your child isn't tall enough to ride the cool-looking roller coaster, they immediately ask 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 them boost bounce-back skills even more.

Empathize with your child's disappointments

For example, if a playdate gets canceled, tell your child about how upset you were when a friend canceled on you. They'll see that it's OK to feel bummed about unexpected situations.

Discuss it

Talk about what your child was most excited about and what they imagined it would be like, suggests 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

It is essential to create a network of other people in your child's life who they can turn to in rough times. Studies show that the most resilient kids can draw in other people to help them.

Use disappointments as opportunities to teach a lesson

"Remind [your child] 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.

Praise them

When your child handles a tricky situation well, don't forget to give them kudos and explain why you are proud of them. Praising a child during a moment like this helps them acknowledge their positive behavior. It also makes them more likely to repeat that behavior in the future.

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, Ph.D., director of Tufts University's Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development, tells you how to get your foot out of your mouth.

Here are three things not to say and why.

"You're acting like a baby"

Don't say, "you're acting like a baby." Instead, relating to your child lets them know it's normal to feel upset, making letdowns less scary over time. Say, "It's OK to feel disappointed. I'd be really upset in this situation too."

"Let's do this instead"

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 their own solution not only helps them feel better at the moment but also shows your child that they can find ways—on their own—to improve a bad situation.

"It's not a big deal"

Don't say, "it's not a big deal." The odds are that disappointment is a big deal to your child, and dismissing it as unimportant conveys that you don't know what really matters to them. 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."

The Bottom Line

Life is full of disappointments, but how we react to those disappointments can mean developing resiliency to get through tough times in the future. Kids are naturally resilient, and with great role models, lots of practice, and plenty of supportive grown-ups to help show them the way, your child can learn how to roll with the punches.

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