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  • Writer's pictureDr. Rachel Kramer

February 27: Managing Disappointment

This month, several young adults I know are on the job market. Hearing about their experiences led me to thinking about how people learn to manage disappointment. For these young adults, disappointment may stem from not getting a job interview or from not being offered a job after an arduous interview process. I’ve known many of these individuals for most of their lives, and hearing about their processes has prompted me to reflect on how they learned to manage disappointment throughout childhood and adolescence such that, by the time they are managing disappointing experiences in their mid- to late-twenties, they have a bank of experiences to refer back to as well as an array of coping skills to help them manage difficult moments.

 

Daily life can be filled with disappointing moments of all types and sizes, from a preschooler who is disappointed that someone else is using their favorite swing to a tween or teenager who is disappointed about being cut from a team or not getting the part they wanted in the school play. While it can feel uncomfortable or painful when your child is faced with a moment in which they feel let down, it is also crucially important that children have practice managing these moments. We want children to learn that while frustration feels uncomfortable and sometimes even excruciating, when their wishes or goals are thwarted they have the coping skills to live through a hard moment and eventually thrive despite the disappointment.

 

What can parents do to support their children’s ability to tolerate experiences of  discontent and frustration? I find it useful to think about a three-step approach to supporting a child’s ability to tolerate disappointment:

1.    Empathize and validate your child’s feelings

2.    Set clear boundaries as needed

3.    Problem solve and support coping

While you might not need every step in every situation, holding this framework in mind can be so useful when you’re managing a tricky moment with a disappointed child and also trying to manage your own feelings about the situation. Here are some specifics of what this might look like for children of different ages.

 

For toddlers and preschoolers:

  • Empathize: “Looks like you’re disappointed that someone else is using your favorite swing.”

  • Set boundaries: “I see you trying to grab the swing. Right now it’s Sam’s turn. Please keep your hands on your own body.”

  • Problem solve and support coping: “This is hard and you’re a kid who can do hard things. Do you want to play Simon Says or play on the climber while you wait for your turn on the swing?”

 

For school-aged children:

  • Empathize and set boundaries: “I hear that you’re frustrated. You really wish this playdate could be longer. Staying longer is not a choice. Let’s talk about other options on the car ride home.”

  • Problem solve and support coping: “Saying goodbye to a friend can be so hard. Let’s think about if there’s a strategy that would help for next time. What ideas do you have? I’m wondering if we should make sure we have a good audiobook to listen to on the car ride home.”

 

For tweens and teens:

  • Empathize: “I know you’re frustrated that you didn’t make _____ [the play, the team]. You really wanted this and it’s hard to feel disappointed.”

  • Set boundaries: “I get that you’re feeling upset. It’s not ok to be cruel to your brother, even if you’re feeling bad.”

  • Problem solve and support coping: “I remember when you were frustrated last week you said it helped when you _____ [went outside to shoot baskets, listened to your favorite playlist, spent some time drawing/building with Legos]. I’m here if you need me. Let me know if there’s anything I can do that won’t make things worse.”

 

These moments can be challenging for parents, as well. It’s useful to remind yourself thatdeveloping the ability to cope with disappointment is an important life skill, and one of the main ways that children learn this skill is by navigating hard moments and coming out the other side. When you are faced with a frustrated child and perhaps feeling overwhelmed by your child’s distress, remember that one of the most helpful things you can do is provide your calm, steady presence. It can help to use positive self-talk to remind yourself of your long-term goals:

  • ‘This is a difficult moment, but it’s not an emergency. My child is mastering an important life skill.’

  • ‘I want to help my child learn that disappointment and frustration are temporary – they don’t last forever.’

  • ‘Two things are true: this is a tough moment for my child and experiencing this difficult moment is helping my child build coping skills.’

  • ‘It’s ok for my child to feel frustrated. Learning to tolerate challenging emotions now means those feelings won’t feel unsurmountable in the future.’

 

Building a new skill takes time and practice. While experiencing disappointment feels uncomfortable, over time your child will develop the confidence that they have survived disappointment in the past and have the experience and coping skills to tolerate future difficult moments.

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