“Mister was good this morning,” my husband writes in a lunchtime email. “He was upset when I told him no TV, but he got over it when I said it was time for food. He got upset again because he wasn’t allowed to have chocolate, but blueberries were OK. He asked for a Christmas cookie, but settled for two gummy vitamins.”
“So many disappointments, so little time,” I reply.
The morning routine isn’t always smooth, but our 3-year-old is slowly learning to compromise and accept disappointment. Dave and I are, for the most part, an unwavering duo: We set boundaries and hold the line, hoping that our efforts will one day result in a reasonable teenager who won’t sulk or scream expletives when we say no to $300 sneakers or a 1 a.m. curfew. As determined as we are, it’s academic at this point. We really have no idea how we’ll navigate disappointment with an older child when the stakes are much higher than a breakfast cookie.
So, how should parents approach the common yet potentially painful subject of life’s disappointments? I asked some experts for guidance.
Consider and reframe your response. It wouldn’t be the holidays without a healthy dose of guilt. As Seattle transplants, our little crew of three lives 2,000 miles from the family festivities. When I was little, Christmas always included a celebration with a hundred relatives and about as many gifts per child. I worry that my son will grow up feeling disappointed about missing the magic that comes with a large extended family. Guilt, I’ve surmised, is why my resolve tends to slip around this time of year, particularly when it comes to his Christmas list. A remote-control shark balloon sounds like a blast! A trampoline could be fun. Sure, I’ll find a robot dog. Another teddy bear? Why not?
My struggle is common, according to Andrew Wittman, a leadership consultant and author of “Seven Secrets of Resilience for Parents.” He reminds me that a child’s approach to disappointment is modeled after his parents', and that it’s important for caregivers to take a closer look at our own emotional responses. “If we’re feeling that pressure, we have to ask ourselves why,” he says. “Usually, it’s that we don’t want to feel like [our kids] are disappointed in us.”
Even if you’re more well adjusted than I when it comes to holiday disappointment, shielding your kids from every letdown means depriving them of a life skill, according to Kelley Kitley, a licensed clinical social worker. “It’s absolutely healthy for kids to feel disappointment,” she says. “If they go through life not learning how to manage these feelings, we set them up for failure.”
Empathize with their point of view (and don’t talk them out of it). A frustrating but sound totem of parenting is the necessity of stepping back. Our role evolves from one that meets every physical and emotional need into one in which we’re supposed to let our kids experience struggle while our instincts protest from the sidelines.
Despite our inclinations, Wittman says that our job as parents is to empathize with — rather than attempt to minimize — our child’s feelings. “Let’s be there with them" when they’re working through disappointment, he says. “Instead of saying ‘It’s all okay,’ or ‘You shouldn’t feel that way,’ it’s better to say, ‘Look, we all feel this way sometimes. I’m here with you until this feeling passes.’ ”
It might be tempting to feel annoyed by your child’s disappointment, especially if they live an abundant life and are still vying for material things (i.e., expensive Christmas gifts). Rather than writing off their emotions as shallow or ungrateful, Wittman suggests that parents consider the pressures kids face from their peers at school and through social media. “This is the crux of the entire matter: The number one fear of all human beings is rejection, and the number one need is acceptance,” he says. In some cases, a coveted smartphone might represent more than a piece of technology, including acceptance into the cool group of kids. The intense grief over what you might perceive as a simple thing could carry more weight in the schoolyard.
Transform disappointment into motivation. Whether you feel empathy or irritation in the face of your child’s disappointment, both cases present an opportunity to teach resilience through desirable difficulty, a psychological theory suggesting that people learn and retain knowledge when faced with measurable challenges. For example, a child who consistently works toward a goal is more likely to retain the lesson of value, which Wittman says easily transforms disappointment into motivation and work ethic.
“It’s almost a crutch for us parents to say that we can’t afford something. It’s an easy way out because I don’t have to have the value discussion,” he says. For parents who anticipate a big ask during the holidays, he says an open discussion can temper expectations. “I say, let’s target it: Maybe we won’t buy it this year, but maybe we’ll get it in two years if it’s something really big, and then we save money on the front end, save birthday money, and maybe the parents will pay for half. And then we’ll see how badly they really want the gift.”
Reinforce the important things. Disappointment is part of life, and while we can’t protect our kids from every emotional valley, Kitley says that focusing on the things that reinforce a child’s self-esteem, including family bonds and a positive worldview, will enable them to handle similar upheavals later in life. The holidays are a perfect time to establish traditions that kids can look forward to, including decorating the tree, spending time with friends, buying gifts for others and volunteering in the neighborhood.
Wittman echoes Kitley’s advice, thinking of his own college-age kids. “We don’t need to keep up with the Joneses because our house is a sanctuary,” he says. “When you set that up for your kids, they can handle whatever’s happening outside.”
Sarah Szczypinski is a journalist living in Seattle. Find her on Twitter @SarahSz23.