Teach your child to deal with disappointment

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Your child walks in the door, drops her backpack on the floor and bursts into tears. She didn’t make the track and field team. Your heart breaks for her – do you tell her you’re going to call the coach right this minute and find out what happened? Mask your own disappointment and tell her nonchalantly that it’s no big deal, and that she should try out for another sports team? Or give her a big hug and burst into tears yourself?

Answer: none of the above.

“Disappointments – from mild to severe – are part of everyday living,” says Sara Dimerman, a child and family therapist in Toronto and author of Character is the Key. “If you are always rescuing your children or overreacting to the situation, they won’t develop the crucial life skills to deal with disappointment in the future.” So set these patterns at an early age to help your child better handle the track team letdown later.

When your child is disappointed, start by acknowledging your child’s feelings, saying something like, “I know you must really be disappointed. I would be too.” Try to match your emotional tone to the situation – don’t embellish or undervalue the disappointment. “Just express genuine emotion,” says Sara. “Sometimes hugging them or putting your arm around them is enough. The bottom line is you want to validate their feelings.” Try not to say things like “Well, not everything’s perfect”, or “That’s life.” That type of terminology, although well intended, may actually make them feel worse. “It makes them feel unsupported and like their feelings don’t matter. Disappointment doesn’t go away that easily. In fact, it’s okay to be disappointed – it’s healthy. Not all bad feelings need to be replaced with happy feelings right away.”

Then, ask your child what they would like to do next. Offer some suggestions: Do you want to write your feelings down or try to draw how you’re feeling? Write a letter to the person who disappointed you? Come up with a list of other activities you’d like to try instead? “By allowing your child to feel the disappointment and think of ways to handle it, it puts them in control and helps them deal with bumps in the road in the future.”

Also think about how you model disappointment as an adult. How resilient are you? How flexible? How do you deal with change? Kids look to their parents to figure out how to deal with difficult emotions. “It’s OK for your kids to see you upset, or even shedding a tear. But if that’s how you always handle any disappointing situation in your house, your child might follow suit and end up being called a cry baby at school.”

The coming middle school years are filled with highs and lows, as kids try to navigate the social and physical changes as they transition from kid to teen. Teaching them to acknowledge their feelings, to communicate and to be resilient now will help them deal with the inevitable curveballs that are likely to come their way in the future.

Some other hints for helping your child deal with disappointment

  • Talk to her about what can and can’t be changed: In life, there are certain things you can control (like your reactions and choices) and things you can’t (like the attitudes and decisions of other people.) Helping your child figure out that difference is a huge life lesson – it’s not what happens to you, it’s how you deal with it.
  • Find opportunities for them to help others: Whether it’s setting the table for dinner or helping a friend with her math homework, your child will get an immense ego boost and sense of satisfaction from helping someone else, and it will also help to keep his problems in perspective.
  • Create a support network: Make sure your child has a solid group of other people beyond your immediate family that he or she can turn to for support, solace and advice. The more connected your child feels, the more easily he’ll be able to navigate life’s difficult moments.
  • Remember past disappointments that turned out okay: When he is hurt, disappointed or sad, help him to remember a time that he bounced back from a previous let down. Knowing that the sadness will eventually pass may make the hurt seem less acute.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, October 2012.

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