How to help kids deal with disappointment

Advice for parents when kids are disappointedWritten by Melissa Camara Wilkins

A couple of weeks ago, some girlfriends and I went out for coffee and talked, as you do, about all the things in our lives and in our families’ lives that have not gone according to plan lately.

He didn’t get a part in the play. She didn’t make the team. His best friend moved away. She didn’t get the summer job. He didn’t understand. I wasn’t invited to that event even though it looks like everyone else on Instagram WAS.

We all know it will all be okay, but… it’s also awful.

It takes me approximately one hot second to make my own disappointments mean something about me. I let myself believe that if I wasn’t invited, it’s probably because no one is interested in my perspective, or because my relationships aren’t what I thought they were, or because I’m just not the kind of person other people want to have around.

I make it all mean that I’m not enough and I don’t belong.

My kids usually go for the more-expansive explanation: It’s not fair and the world is ending.

That’s about how it feels. But I don’t want any of us to get stuck there, right? Ultimately, I want my kids to know that they can experience disappointment and survive. Unmet expectations will not crush them. Even smashed-up hopes, broken hearts, dreams that didn’t quite come true—I want them to know these can all be endured.

Helping Kids Handle Disappointment: 3 Steps that help

This is what I want them to know: Things will not always turn out how you expect, but you are strong, and you can do this.

Even if I’m still figuring that out myself.

So what do you do with disappointment until you get to the place where it’s all okay? And what do you tell your kids about it?

Here’s where I start.

1. Feel the feelings.

It’s okay to feel disappointed, even about something small or silly. Pretending we don’t have feelings doesn’t make them go away, it just means they’re going to come out sideways.

What to say when your kids feel disappointed

Most of the time, feelings are like a wave in the ocean: they come in, they wash over you, and when you’ve felt them all, they go back out. They might be big, they might knock you over or knock the wind out of you, but they’re not here to stay.

Feelings give you good information, but they’re not in charge of you. You can feel them, and listen to them, and then you get to decide what happens next.

2. Pay attention to the story you’re telling.

As you’re feeling your feelings, does the story in your head (or the story your child is believing) sound like “This is it, things will never be right again,” or is it more like “Why, why, why? This isn’t what I wanted, this is miserable”?

Because stories that start with “always” and “never” and “nothing” are maybe not quite as true as stories that remind us that transformation is always possible. Even if our circumstances won’t change, we can grow and change as we live through them.

A disappointment may be the end of something. It absolutely might need to be grieved. But disappointment is not our final destination.

Things that don’t go according to plan do change our stories, but they don’t end our stories. I will wake up again tomorrow, and it might hurt, but I will still be here and I will still be breathing. Disappointment does not get the last word.

3. Get curious about the next right thing.

Yes, sometimes things happen that we would not have chosen. Yes, the disappointment and the unmet expectations feel terrible. Yes, we think the other path, the one we’re no longer on, would have been better. That may all be true. But it’s also true that disappointment opens up possibilities you wouldn’t otherwise have considered.

When I stop clinging to the thing that didn’t happen and start wondering what my next step might be, I open myself up to seeing possibility. I get unstuck right then and there.

How to teach your kids to handle disappointment

Eventually it will be okay again. I know it. I want my kids to know it, too. It’s not easy, but we can do hard things.

How do you deal with inevitable disappointments? How do you walk your kids through rough days?

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About Melissa Camara Wilkins

Melissa Camara Wilkins is a homeschooling mom of six in Southern California. She writes about being who you were made to be and letting go of the rest.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this post. It’s just what I needed this weekend, as I had to break it to a couple of my kids that they need to quit an activity they love due to budget and time constraints. They cried. I felt terrible. It’s hard: in our culture as parents there’s tremendous pressure to let our kids do all.the.great.things. But your words give me a wise direction to take as I let them feel their feelings and we adjust. I love the wave analogy. And I love this: “Feelings give you good information but they’re not in charge of you.” (I need to hear those words myself!
    Julie’s latest post: thursday afternoon.

    • I need to hear it myself ALL THE TIME.

      Having to deliver disappointing news is my least favorite thing. I know it’s a good thing for my kids to get to understand the limits of time and money and energy, I know it’s a good thing to walk them through their hard feelings, but it still feels awful. So then I get to remind myself again that my feelings are not in charge of me… sigh! 😉
      Melissa Camara Wilkins’s latest post: When You Need to Believe in Your Own Belonging

  2. I seem to have an innate ability to problem solve, so when a disappointment hits, I go into survive-change-the-path-find-a-solution mode. Which often means I don’t feel all the feelings because I’m busy trying to fix. This has been a good model for my kids in that they have learned that when something doesn’t work out, you can always try something else, but it hasn’t taught them to feel the disappointment and work through it. We all tend to shut our feelings in a cupboard and start the fixing process. This post really brought that to light: we need to start with the feelings and let them wash over us like waves so that we can incorporate that process into our fixing. I think that if we’ve felt the emotions authentically, we’ll be better problem solvers and more ready to accept when a problem can’t be fixed. Thanks for this.

  3. Pamela Hans says:

    Today it seems that the culture is focused on children not being exposed to difficult feelings. Now children don’t loose at sports, everyone gets a trophie, they’re not permitted to know at a young age that they may not always win or get what they want. Disappointments are tough and endings are tougher, but they are all part of the life experience. I particularly love your concept of “The Yet Rule”. It’s ok to be disappointed because we know there is something beyond that place. This brings to minds a cliche “when God closes a door, he opens a window” which says the same thing. I prefer your Yet Rule much better. It’s so important to feel the sadness that comes with the disappointment, it’s real but as you say, it will pass. The ocean analogy has always been a favorite of mine because it’s so visual and so real. The wave will come over you and you may feel like it will never end, but alas we know as adults that it will recede and we will come out of it stronger and more resilient the next time we face a similar situation and we know that it will come. I am a mother of two and know how painful it is to watch our children go through painful times. We so want to shield them from all the struggles of life. However, it’s more important for me to deal with my own pain at seeing them suffer than to try and shield them from the inevitable struggles they will encounter all through their lives. What we learn from living through the strife is much more important than growing up never feeling those hard times. How do you learn to survive if you’ve never been given the tools? Yes, this hard, yes this hurts, yes I want what I want but sometimes we just don’t get it and that’s okay. Feel the pain, feel the hurt but remember you are enough and you alone can be the one to come out on top eventually. Sit in that hard place long enough to learn that the edges will soften in time, be patient and experience the lesson. Wait for the joy to return for it most certainly will!

    • This: “it’s more important for me to deal with my own pain at seeing them suffer than to try and shield them from the inevitable struggles they will encounter all through their lives.” So hard and so wise, Pamela! I think I’m trying to teach my kids things, but really I get to do all this learning and growing in the process. 😉
      Melissa Camara Wilkins’s latest post: When You Need to Believe in Your Own Belonging

  4. Tough times as babies grow up and leave home. It hurts. And then one day you realize that they have turned into wonderful adults. They have had the opportunity to see how blessed their own home is and to begin to find their place in the world. Keep doing what you do so well. Tell them how much you are going to miss them … and then let each fly with your blessing (albeit through tears). Remember that however deeply you love your children, they are even more precious to God.

  5. kimmie says:

    My 16 year oldson came home from youth group on Sunday in tears. The elders decided that youth group wouldn’t be meeting again until Sept. This was announced after the kids spent most of the evening making summer plans. IG is the youth rep for the church board and felt like held let te other kids down because he did’t know anything about ths decision. He wrote and angry letter to the bord president. The youth team had an emergency meeting last night. IG came home and went back to retyping his angry letter. Then. He stopped. He said, “I don’t think I want to write this and turn it in. I was just really mad.” I was sooooooo proud of him at that moment.

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