Helping children cope with disappointment

By Sheila Gains, October, 2006
Colorado State University Extension
Agent, Family and Consumer Sciences, Arapahoe County

We all have those moments when things don't go as planned, but for children, who have fewer experiences to help them put things in perspective, being disappointed can seem unbearable.

Common times of the year when children are most prone to disappointment include major holidays, such as Christmas, birthdays and vacations. Children can be disappointed about the gifts they receive, the amount of one-on-one attention they receive when friends and family gather, or how much time they have to wait in line to see Santa, a movie or ride an amusement ride. Many times a child's disappointment can be lessened by preparing him with realistic expectations. Parents can help by discussing early the cost and other limitations on gifts they would like. For example, if your child wants a puppy for the holidays, but you live in an apartment that doesn't allow pets, this needs to be discussed long before presents are unwrapped. Let your child know that a toy animal or a gold fish is a more realistic possibility.

Let children know in advance when you will be busy hosting an event and not able to give them your full attention for a few hours. Tell them the kind of behaviors you expect and the kind of attention they can expect from you. Ask them to help you with some of the event tasks, and give them a choice. For example, "I could really use some help at this event. Would it work best for you to greet guests as they arrive or would you feel more comfortable taking coats?" Making them part of the team lets them know that you expect cooperation and makes them feel valuable. Giving them choices helps empower them. Keep in mind the age of your child or children and don't expect more than they can deliver in the behavior department. Work out a secret code word or gesture they can give you if they need to speak with you privately for a minute. These tools help children feel powerful and in control and can avoid an untimely meltdown.

You can't always prepare your children for what life has in store, nor can you protect them from experiencing many of life's disappointments. "Life isn't always fair," is a comment we've probably all heard at some time, and it's true. You can, however, show them how to accept disappointments, learn from them and move on to an acceptable outcome. Role model how you deal with disappointments by showing them how you find unexpected yet positive outcomes, even when things don't go your way. Ask your child to talk about the day, event or occasion, what they liked and didn't like and to verbalize at least one positive thing they learned or will remember about the day. This activity helps children take responsibility for their own feelings by choosing to find happiness instead of dwelling on disappointments.

In her book "Dealing with Disappointment: Helping Kids Cope When Things Don't Go Their Way" (Parenting Press, Inc.), Elizabeth Crary says that when children don't develop the ability to soothe themselves, resolve their problems, and understand other's feelings, they are vulnerable to a host of other problems, such as academic trouble, aggression, alcohol and drug addiction, depression and eating disorders. She says the solution to a child's emotional distress is not for parents to make children's lives emotionally smooth, but to give children the skills they need to choose happiness.

Children often need help describing the issue or their feelings. They may also need help brainstorming ideas for dealing with situations and feelings. After they have come up with an acceptable plan, ask how you can help.

Some of the best ways to show how much you care about your children is to teach them how to calm themselves when they're upset, and show them they have the power to choose to be happy. Most disappointments in childhood are small but they can prepare us to handle larger challenges later in life.

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Updated Tuesday, July 22, 2014