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Helping a child deal with disappointment

Protective father hugs child
Credit: iStock.com/SolStock

As a parent you hate to see your child disappointed. You can’t help wanting to take the pain away. But should you?

Navigating disappointment is something everybody must do at some stage in their life. But what should parents do when their child faces disappointment?

Dr Elizabeth Westrupp, clinical psychologist at Deakin University, says it’s important to recognise that all emotions are vital, even the ones that make children feel unhappy.

“There’s nothing wrong with negative emotions, even though they’re uncomfortable feelings, they’re still very important and a big part of life. Anytime we invest our energy into something we feel attached to it, so there’s always the risk of disappointment,” Dr Westrupp says. 

“But, when your child faces disappointment, parents can’t just pretend it doesn’t exist. You can’t experience a full life without negative emotions, whether it’s loss or sadness.  So, in terms of what we should be teaching our kids to support them through disappointment you need to help them understand their own emotions.”

If there’s a very big over-reaction to disappointment, you just need to wait for it to pass, as there’s not a lot you can do. If your child is hurting themselves or hurting other people of course you’ll need to make sure they’re safe and others are safe around them.
Dr Elizabeth Westrupp

It's okay to be sad sometimes

Dr Westrupp says it’s crucial to tell children that it’s okay to be sad sometimes and that it’s a natural part of life.

“If your child has a particularly bad reaction to being disappointed, whether it’s not being able to go to the park because it’s raining, or that they weren’t invited to a friend’s birthday party – it’s okay to let them display their emotions in whatever way they feel they need to.

“The difficult part of dealing with a disappointed child is their reaction to it and also that they don’t over react.  That’s where it’s important for parents to step in and teach age appropriate problem solving skills and trusting them to come up with potential solutions.”

Remain calm and connected

Dr Westrupp advises parents to deal with a child’s disappointment in a measured way, because if your child sees that you are disappointed it may intensify their own reaction.

“If you have a toddler and she faces a disappointment and has a big emotional reaction, try to remain as calm and connected as you can – even if it means just standing quietly with your child and maintaining eye contact or give them a hug if that’s okay with your child,” Dr Westrupp says.

“If there’s a very big over-reaction to disappointment, you just need to wait for it to pass, as there’s not a lot you can do. If your child is hurting themselves or hurting other people of course you’ll need to make sure they’re safe and others are safe around them.”

Teach emotional regulation

Allowing your children to see that disappointment is an important life lesson helps them to accept our own emotions.

According to Dr Westrupp, those life lessons start right from birth.

“Your child needs to be able to accept their own emotions and let them be. That’s how we teach emotion regulation skills so, over time, they’ll be able to accept their own emotions and when they do that, they’ll be more able to regulate their own emotions.”

Psychologist Tracy Bentin from Stepping Stones Psychology, says no one gets through life without experiencing disappointment.

“Children need the skills to manage those feelings because feeling disappointment is the reality for all of us. Often the most disappointing moments, can be time to connect with our kids and it’s also a time to strengthen our bond,” Ms Bentin says.

“In terms of resilience for kids, learning to deal with disappointment is a very important factor to being resilient as they grow. It’s crucial we make an effort to teach children to be able to identity their own feelings, so they can label the feelings and that allows them to express feelings in appropriate ways.

“Kids need to know how they’re feeling and then know how to explain it to themselves and to others, and that it’s okay to feel disappointed.”

Acknowledge children's feelings

Ms Bentin believes it’s important that we acknowledge our child’s feelings without trying to gloss over them.

“That’s where empathy is important in terms of developing a child’s emotional intelligence. If we can connect with them on that level, that helps the chemical reaction that’s taking place in the brain to calm them and puts us in a better position to problem solve.

“It’s also a good idea to let your child know that you understand what they’re feeling and you can try to help them manage their disappointment by asking, ‘What can I do to help you feel better?’.”

Be a role model

Ms Bentin suggests parents take a look at their own role modelling and see how they handle their own emotions; how they express emotions when they’re faced with disappointment.

“Remember, your child is watching you all the time. Parents role modelling is vital; if the child is disappointed, then you can guide them by getting them to focus on what did go well.

“For example, if they didn’t win a race, you can say, ‘It’s awesome that you were in the race and that you never gave up’. So, focus on the positive instead of focusing on the fact that they didn’t do as well as they had hoped.”

Another important thing we learn when we deal with disappointment is resilience and children build up resilience as they learn to bounce back from negative feelings.

Dr Bentin says resilience is key to our mental health.

“Resilience is an important underlying factor in how we tackle life, because it impacts our life and our relationships in so many ways.

“Learning resilience plays a big role in so many areas of a child’s life as they grow and, overall, the better they’re able to cope with negative situations, the more their mental health is likely to flourish.”

DO’s

  • Tell children it’s okay to be sad sometimes
  • Allow them to display emotions
  • Use it as an opportunity to connect with your child
  • Look to your own role modelling in the face of disappointment

DON’T’S

  • Pretend the disappointment doesn’t exist
  • Broadcast your own disappointment
  • Focus on the negatives