Helping Children Through Disappointment

Author: Adrian Williams
July 27, 2020

DEM A Williams offers guidelines for helping children deal with disappointment.

“My kids are beginning to think about school in the fall, I am stressed about talking to them because I know that even if they are back in the classrooms, it won’t be like they expect.”

This is truly a tough issue to deal with. With so much unknown and just a month to go, it is hard to even start a school conversation. Many kids are looking forward to time with friends that they associate with school, and some even are missing the structure of the classroom day. Yet, these things are unlikely to be as they expect when/if they do go back to the classroom this fall. So, if we can’t help prepare children for exactly what they will experience, how can we talk to them in a way that will help them when the time comes? I think the best thing to talk about right now is disappointment. 

Listen and Validate
“I’m scared that there won’t be a school play” is one of the fears expressed by a student that led me to focus on this topic. It’s a valid fear, but we as adults often allow our own fears and worries to overshadow and treat a child's fear as less than valid. Validating the fear (even if the fear is unlikely to happen…say “never going back to school” for example) is important for letting children know that you are listening and want them to know you are being part of THEIR WORLD and they aren’t just part of yours. This is not a time to say things like, “that’s not a big deal” or “that’s unlikely to happen.” Rather it is important to first reassure your children that even though we don’t know what the future holds, you’re proud of them for thinking about their feelings and sharing them. Then ask them to expound on what it is they actually are upset about. One child may be upset that they won’t get to act in the school play, another may be thinking about how all the “fun things” like socializing with other cast members that were going to be part of the experience, and still others may have different reasons for these feelings of potential disappointment. It is reasonable to emphasize to children that while we don’t know when or how things will change, they will see friends again at some point and enjoy activities they are missing and that there’s still a lot to look forward to. You might share your own experiences of change and uncertainty, including how you dealt with those challenges and what the results were. Just don’t make this your FIRST response.

Manage Expectations
Disappointment is a complicated emotion for children to process. It’s one of the reasons that when their expectations aren’t met, they will sometimes throw a fit or have a meltdown. The potential for disappointment is high right now when some have latched onto school as a “sure thing” for their fall. One of the first things to do is help kids manage expectations. Remember to use the word “might” as often as possible, the difference for children between “will” and “might” may seem small, but as they develop, the small doubt of a “might” becomes meaningful. One way to help process expectations with nearly any age is by making a list with 3 columns: Hopes, Possibilities, and Sure Things, and to categorize expectations accordingly. For example: They may hope to visit friends’ houses, it’s possible they will see their favorite teacher, and it’s a sure thing they will learn new things. 

Give Them a Sense of Control
By far the hardest and scariest part as this pandemic has continued is the realization that we have no control over the big picture or when/how things will eventually be. Now is again time to work with children to plan out days, and consider what they will need when things don’t go according to plan. What projects might they enjoy digging into? Do they want to have input into home life like chores or meals? Knowing that you value their ideas can make even disappointing situations a lot easier for children to bear. More importantly now though is to help children control of their own feelings, to help them develop coping behaviors. You may start by telling your child what your go-to coping skills are. Help them also see that they have been demonstrating coping skills every day, just by getting out of bed and participating in family life. So, ask yourself: what are the tools that helped you and your child to do this so far? Coping might look similar for your children, but they may also have their own particular skills. Maybe they value watching a funny movie to end the day or drawing in a journal. Once you’ve talked about your skills, ask them, “What things help you most?”

Teach Calming Skills
Sometimes we all need to expand our box of coping/calming skills. In learning to process uncomfortable emotions, we learn to cope with disappointment and to get through hard things. Every person (and child) is different and has different needs when it comes to finding calm, so here are some suggestions from PBS:

  • Breathe the rainbow — practice deep breathing while thinking about favorite things for each color of the rainbow
  • Use art to work through feelings — coloring, drawing and molding clay can all be relaxing
  • Listen to soft music
  • Read or ask a parent to read to you
  • Get outside to play
  • Snuggle up with a stuffed animal and a few favorite toys

Practice Delayed Gratification
In today’s online world, none of us are very good at delayed gratification. Routines are useful when it comes to helping kids learn to delay gratification. When a family has a rule that kids take thirty minutes of downtime before heading to the park to meet friends after school, the kids learn to slow down and be, and not to just run from one activity to the next. This is also a good time to practice goal setting as a family, working on one thing at a time and using timers to remember to take breaks.

Have Faith in Your Children
While the disappointments related to the coronavirus crisis are on a much bigger scale than what we may wish for our families to experience, it’s important to remember that these aren’t the first disappointments most children have faced. Most have experienced earning a lower than expected grade, or losing a game. Allow them to experience disappointment, to build resiliency. These experiences allow us to strengthen ourselves in times of disappointment and struggle. Children need to be reminded that we as adults think they can handle this even stating outright some version of: “I think you got this, I know it’s really hard, but you can handle this.” We need to remember that our children will eventually be able to look back on this time and reflect on how they were creative in finding ways to connect with their friends, how they found new ways to entertain themselves at home, and how they persevered over new challenges. 

Every time we experience disappointment is different. Be patient when seemingly small events cause big reactions. Remember that sometimes a good vent helps us work through emotions before we can process a disappointing event and what we can do to recover.


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