Helping our kids master disappointment

Hasn’t 2020 been a year full of disappointment?! From loss of job opportunities, travel opportunities, closed playgrounds and schools to forced separations from loved ones…it has been one endless ride full of disappointment. Interestingly, after eight months I have noticed that I cope with disappointment so much better. So obviously there is a lot of truth in the saying, practice can improve performance.

The same goes for our children. There has been a tendency in recent years for parents to protect their children from moments of failure or discomfort because it can create emotional distress. I often suggest that we need to change the rules of the party game, Pass the Parcel, back to the old rules where there was only one winner! The reason I suggest this is that under five is a really important window in which children can learn about disappointment and, even more importantly, how to manage it. Yes it does ‘suck’ when we don’t win, or we don’t get what we want or others behave in ways that we would prefer they didn’t. Our response to these moments is disappointment and it is a normal human response to those situations.

I have been fascinated by the findings of Lisa Feldman Barrett in her book, How Emotions are Made, especially as it tips many of my understandings about emotions completely upside down. Feldman Barrett argues that we don’t have a triune brain and that there is no part called the emotional brain per se. She has explored research in incredible depth and discovered that there are no universal emotions. Instead we all create our own unique emotional responses based on our brain’s capacity to construct and predict everything we experience. This is called the theory of constructed emotion. Without diving too deeply into her research, essentially from birth we are creating, much like an architect, a version of our environment and our experience. We create our own concepts about emotions like what they are, where they come from and what they mean. Then we create our own unique way of managing them.

What does this have to do with helping our children with disappointment?

It means that if we are able to allow our children to experience as many authentic moments of disappointment as possible with our guidance and support, they will gradually create neural pathways that will help them manage and cope. Yes, from not being allowed a biscuit before dinner, not being able to get a pony, not having yet another story before bed, not being allowed to go naked in public…the list goes on from toddlerhood to teenage-hood. So many wonderful opportunities to practice understanding and navigating disappointment.

Consider for a moment the toddler who is learning to walk. We know they fall over a lot and yet there are no obvious signs that they are disappointed with their efforts.

Barrett would argue that is because they haven’t formed a constructed emotion around failure – that will come later and largely in response to us big people. When they drop their dinner on the floor, or they throw their food or they fail to fall asleep when we want them to – they are forming those pathways that will trigger emotions particularly around disappointment. The traditional understanding is that humans are largely reactive creatures responding to things that happen around them. Barrett’s theory is that we, together with our children, can help them become the architects of their own experience.

The difference between feeling ashamed and disappointed

Children who have been shamed when they experience quite normal toddler and infant experiences will tend to create the architecture that will make disappointment a reason to feel ashamed, rather than just feeling disappointed.

If we are able to acknowledge that some developmentally normal behaviours are exactly that – rather than assign a meaning that our little ones are intentionally being destructive – then we are already helping them create more resilience and capacity for overcoming failure and disappointment. My 4 Steps to toddler genius is a great place to start.

These same steps can be applied with our little ones as they get older with the addition that we start the process by validating how disappointment feels. It sucks! This is so helpful as it shows we understand how they feel and that it is absolutely normal and healthy to have that response when things don’t go the way we want them to. I think it is helpful for us grown-ups to model managing our disappointment as well. We need to keep reminding our children that even though it isn’t a pleasant feeling, disappointment is a normal response.

It does create a flood of different sensations throughout the body, depending on our prior experiences and our own unique temperament. There is no question that optimistic individuals can navigate disappointment a lot more effectively than our more pessimistic individuals! It seems some of that tendency may come in on our DNA and the more pessimistic child will need to work harder at being able to master the hidden gifts that disappointment can bring into their lives.

There are two different ways we can be disappointed.

One way we can be disappointed is through things that are out of our control such as changes made by others, like what happened during the shutdowns. This can also be around things that get cancelled, not being invited to a birthday party or a wedding.

Secondly, there are the disappointments that can come from things we do have control over like forgetting your lunchbox, losing a much-loved jacket, causing a friendship conflict because we said something mean or failing a test we never studied for.

This is an important thing to teach your kids – early and often. There are some things we can fix and some things we just have to learn to accept and adapt to.

Angela Duckworth in her excellent book Grit: Why passion and resilience are the secrets to success argues strongly that talent alone is not enough to reach a high level of success in life. Sustained practice and effort, when combined with an interest that has a sense of purpose to it, are the keys to genuine success in life.

The more that our children practice overcoming setbacks in moments of disappointment, the better they get at it. Rather than avoiding moments of disappointment, we need to be embracing them as a form of training for life. I know it’s easier said than done!

As parents we can be enthusiastic and encouraging about recovering from life’s challenging moments. I always found it helpful to look for the learning experience that was often hidden under each moment of disappointment. The failed test was often a chance to explore gaps in one of my son’s learning or more-often-than-not a lack of preparation!

Setting a new goal following a moment of failure, can also be helpful as it refocuses a child towards a future possibility of success, rather than leaving them stuck in a pile of disappointed muck.

The old metaphor about getting back on the horse when you fall off seriously has some merit and it was one that my dad used often (even though we didn’t have any horses on the farm). Having parents who display a strong ‘have a go’ mentality, even when you have no chance of winning, can also be really helpful. Persistence and grit (again, as explored by Angela Duckworth) are qualities that we can cultivate in childhood, especially through play experiences.

Play in all its wonderful and varied forms is still the very best way that we cultivate a strength around managing disappointment. Emotional buoyancy is only learned through experience and by learning and adapting to these times that suck. Our children and teens need to be experiencing moments of autonomy where they stretch and grow themselves in their own way, and in their own time in order to develop authentic competence and confidence.

We are meant to fall out of trees and we are meant to graze our knees when we run too fast. We can certainly lose our minds when we lose a game or miss a goal or target. However, recovering from these moments is what matters the most. Every one of those moments has a gift of grit for us and our children.

Playing endless games in real time with real humans is the other best way of learning how to lose and recover. No digital device will ever give you an authentic experience of disappointment and recovery. Indeed, in the virtual world you are often encouraged when you fail to have another go quickly, rather than feel the emotions that disappointment can bring. This can mean that children simply choose avoidance and distraction rather than authentic coping mechanisms.

Here are some tips to help you build disappointment ‘smarts’ in your kids:

  • Always validate how it sucks and feels unpleasant.
  • Don’t avoid or minimise the emotions that arise.
  • Teach strategies to shift the emotional energy – deep breaths, walking, patting the dog, playing music.
  • How can you make it right? Celebrate effort and persistence.
  • Do you need my help?
  • Remind them of previous moments of disappointment that they have overcome.
  • Remind them about learning to be stronger and grittier.
  • Choose an affirmation that works “I have got this” or “I am, I can, I will,” or “I am more than this…”
  • Reassure them of your love for them which does not change when things go badly – You love them always and forever – no matter what.

Accepting, understanding and even appreciating the role disappointment can play in raising a competent, confident, resilient child might not be something you have pondered on before.

We cannot leave it to chance to raise our children to believe that this rollercoaster ride we call life will ever be a peaceful field of daisies without any prickles.

Feeling disappointed in ourselves or in our lives, or in the world around us is normal because we are human. There is no perfect. The more that we can armour up our children with helpful information, strategies and a ‘get back on the horse’ mentality, the more we increase their chances of living meaningful, successful lives.

Remember, persistence and practice can improve performance and failure is just a part of life, not a sign that we are lousy parents.


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