It just started pouring rain, but you promised your school-aged son you would go on a bike ride. You explain to your son that outdoor time won’t work now and he collapses into hysterical sobbing. These meltdowns are tough but you can help your child manage disappointment.
Disappointment is a healthy emotion and it is necessary for children to feel it. We don’t want to shield our children from disappointment as it is a critical emotion for driving resiliency.
Disappointment can help children understand there is something they desire. If we teach our young children to manage disappointment well, it could potentially motivate good decision-making.
Nonetheless it’s still hard to feel disappointment and it’s equally hard to watch your child experience it intensely. If disappointments frequently send your child into tears, don’t fear – I’ve got eight strategies to help your child manage disappointment.
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1. Name the feeling as disappointment
The first step in to help your child manage disappointment is to name the feeling.
When your child is dealing with any big feeling, it can be helpful to identify the feeling for him or her. Your child doesn’t necessarily know why he is feeling awful. your child just knows something happened and now he feels out of control.
As the safe adult, naming it signals to your child that disappointment is a known feeling. Disappointment doesn’t need to be a big, scary unknown. Naming emotions can remove some fear.
Second, naming the feeling gives your child the vocabulary that it a necessary stepping stone for emotional intelligence and self-regulation. Being able to identify emotions is the first step in learning about feelings and developing the skills to manage them.
You could say to your child: “You’re feeling disappointed. That is a big feeling.”
Last, naming the feeling is a method of validating how your child is feeling. You’re noticing that this is what your child is experiencing by simply naming it. Your child feels understood when you name his feeling and that helps him learn to manage his disappointment.
If you have an especially intense child, see if naming the feeling makes the meltdown worse. If it does, wait until your child is more calm to name the emotion. Introverted or intense children might need more time to be able to name it.
2. Affirm your child’s capabilities
After naming the disappointment, it is important to affirm that your child is capable of managing the big feeling. This communicates confidence to your child.
Affirming your child’s competence also helps your child develop a confident inner voice. By routinely communicating that you believe your child is capable of handling a big feeling, your child will be able to coach himself.
Our family likes to use the mantra “You can handle it.” We got this mantra from book the I Can Handle it which I strongly recommend. My daughter immediately started applying this mantra in her life after reading the book.
3. Lead with empathy
As modern parents, we something struggled with our own patience levels when there are so many demands on our time. Thus, there is often a temptation to minimize our child’s disappointment and say “it’s not that big of a deal.”
Truthfully, it only seems like it’s a small deal to you because you are an adult and you have a lifetime of practice managing your disappointments. Resist the temptation to minimize your child’s feelings.
Instead, lead with empathy and acknowledge that this feeling is hard for your child. This is a way to normalize the feeling and teach that feelings are healthy.
My husband routinely tells our daughter, “When I was your age, I’d feel the same way.” He then elaborates with a story which my daughter finds helpful.
You could say something like, “Wow, I can see this disappointment is really tough for you. I used to feel the same way when my mom told me when couldn’t go for a bike ride.”
4. Ditch dismissing
The opposite of empathy is contempt and it creates and teaches a destructive shame cycle. By dismissing, or worse getting angry and shaming your child, he or she will begin to feel ashamed and internalize the feelings.
Initially it might seem like your child is dealing with the emotion because the disruptive behavior has gone away, but potentially your child might be just burying it deeply. At some point, these feeling will erupt in an unpleasant way.
While you might need your child to change his or her behavioral response to feeling disappointed, we want to communicate with empathy that some feelings are big and harder to handle. Dismissing doesn’t teach skills.
Dig deep in yourself if you feel the temptation to dismiss and bring some empathy to yourself. It is hard to parent a child through big feelings. Most likely, no one coached you through your big feelings so you’re learning along side your child.
5. Give some space
Often children need space to work through their feeling. Give your child physical space to feel their feeling. You might want to say, “I’m going to give you some space to work through your disappointment” and walk away.
Allowing your child to work through the feeling on their own is another way to affirm their competence. It is also respectful when you notice your child needs physical space to safely process the feeling.
Giving space might also mean you just provide your child a safe emotional space to work through the feeling. Often that means you just need to quit talking.
Be quiet. And just let your child take time to work through the feeling.
If you have an anxious, sensitive child, giving too much space may feel more like abandonment. This is a time when you need to use your best judgement about your child: introverts want space, extroverts need their people.
6. Get close to your child
The opposite is also true depending on your child. If you have a child who feels more comfortable with you close by or with your physical touch, hang out with them and offer hugs and cuddles if that’s what your child needs. You might want to ask, “Would you like a hug while you feel disappointed?”
You can also try giving gentle squeezes on your child’s arms – sometimes the firm but painless pressure is calming for kids.
It might be hard to watch your child struggle with the big feeling but by staying calm and present, you are projecting confidence in your child’s competence.
Some intense or sensitive kids don’t want physical touch when they are feeling out-of-control. So if this doesn’t seem to work, observe how your child feels about touch when calm and when emotionally escalated.
7. Observe the ending of the disappointment
One great thing about feelings is they do diminish over time. What was once intense disappointment, will eventually turn to mild disappointment or even disappear altogether for our children.
A helpful strategy is to observe the ending of the feeling and communicate it to your child.
Do you ever play the “So Big” game with your baby? In this game the parent says “How big is Johnny?” Then she spreads her arms wide apart and says “So big!”
You can do something similar to quantify the intensity of big feelings. So you’ll say, “You’re feeling really disappointed” with your arms spread wide. As the feeling begins to diminish, you can quantify the intensity of the feeling by holding your arms about 12 inches apart. You can say, “You’re feeling a medium disappointment.”
When the feeling seems to have finished, you’ll say “Your disappointment is done” with your hands clapped together. As you practice observing the ending of a feeling with your child, you are teaching your child that feelings do end even if they feel incredibly intense at the beginning.
8. Practice Calming Strategies
Calming strategies can help a child get regulated enough to manage their disappointment. Taking deep breaths, counting to 10, and coloring a picture are all easy and manageable calming strategies.
It’s critical to discuss the strategies ahead of time and model them for your child.
Calming strategies only work when they are pre-taught and generally won’t work in the height of a meltdown. Try to catch your child before the meltdown escalates.
Recapping Help Your Child Manage Disappointment
Here’s the tired parent’s recap to help your child manage disappointment.
- Name your child’s feeling as disappointment to demonstrate it is a known feeling.
- Affirm that your child is capable of handling a big feeling.
- Use empathy to make sure your child feels understood and supported.
- Even when frustrated, avoid dismissing the feeling – you’ve had years of practice and your child hasn’t.
- Some children (especially introverts) benefit from some physical space to manage the disappointment.
- Some children like to be held or gently squeezed to calm their bodies so try getting close to your child.
- When the disappointment has passed, observe the ending of the feeling so you’re child feels closure.
- Get a free printable and practice calming strategies when your child is already child.
For a lot of children, managing disappointment is hard. Use these 8 strategies with your child, notice what is and isn’t working, teach calming strategies and watch your child develop confidence in handling big feelings.