Helping Kids Deal With Disappointment

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Children’s lives are full of disappointments large and small. Your toddler’s long-lashed eyes are brimming with tears, her hopes of playing at the park dashed by a snowstorm. Your 8-year-old animal-lover begs for a dog, only to learn that he’s allergic. Your teenager wasn’t selected for the basketball team despite logging hours of grueling practice.

These situations are nearly as hard on parents as they are on children. Nobody wants to see their child suffer. How can parents help kids navigate a world that isn’t always fun, or fair? Read on for age-by-age guidelines on helping kids deal with disappointment.

2-6 years
Protective Measures

Though it’s instinctive to want to protect young children from the sadness that accompanies disappointment, this tactic can backfire. “Many well-intentioned parents structure their child’s environment to try to avoid allowing the child to feel any disappointment,” says parenting coach Stephanie T. Jones, chair of the North Carolina Parenting Education Network. While parents’ motivations are positive — they generally want to help a child avoid negative emotions and be more successful — shielding kids from uncomfortable feelings can prevent them from the developing emotional resilience required for success in preschool and beyond.

Protecting kids from all disappointment or failure can be crippling to preschoolers, says George S. Everly Jr., affiliate professor of psychology at Loyola University Maryland and author of “The Resilient Child: Seven Essential Lessons for Your Child’s Happiness and Success.” Instead of giving in to a child’s unreasonable demand in order to keep the peace, acknowledge and name his emotion — “I know you’re angry that you can’t have that cookie before dinner, but you’ll have to wait” — to validate his feelings without stifling emotional growth.

7-12 years
Future Focus

Notoriously emotional, tweens tend to exaggerate even small disappointments and failures. But parents shouldn’t dismiss seemingly insignificant emotional upsets; a minor setback like a poor grade can seem like a mountainous problem to a school-age child. Resist the temptation to use a disappointing situation to prove a point, says Jones. At the height of a child’s emotional distress, voicing that he might have avoided the bad grade by studying harder makes the problem immediately worse. Instead, listen without replying or swooping in to solve the problem, advises Jones. Sometimes, all your child wants is your ear.

“When failures occur, it’s important to keep a future orientation,” says Everly. “Ask the child what he or she learned from the failure that will help promote success in the future.” Encourage positive, future-focused thinking about what your child might do differently next time. To help build confidence to try again, adopt the mantra “Anything worth having is worth failing for.”

13-18 years
Confidence in Crisis

With jobs, college admissions, sports success and romantic relationships all on the line, disappointments loom large for teens. After a setback, help your disappointed teen cope by focusing on her disappointment, instead of on your own feelings. “It’s critical for parents to pause and reflect on their own emotional response to their teen’s disappointments and failures,” says Jones. Some parents are over-involved in their teen’s success and take a child’s failures personally, which can lead to regrettable reactions instead of constructive help.

Teens who cope with disappointment well are those with “an inner confidence,” says Everly. Parents should play a supporting role, allowing teens to solve problems independently and stepping in as a coach or cheerleader only when needed. Teens with strong self-efficacy — belief in their own ability to handle life’s problems — are better equipped to deal with the emotional roller coaster ride of the teenage years.

Malia Jacobson is a nationally published parenting journalist. Her most recent book is “Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.”