Helping Children Handle Disappointment

Published Friday, January 27, 2017

We've all experienced what life is like when things don't go our way, but while adults know how to take disappointment in stride, kids often don't – not without a little help, that is.

Give your kids the tools they need to move on! Even a supermom can't prevent setbacks like when your aspiring actor doesn't land a lead role or when a nasty cold keeps your child from attending a school field trip. But you can help your child learn to bounce back and grow from adversity, says marriage and family therapist Christina Steinorth, M.A., author of Cue Cards for Life. The key, she explains, is in helping to build your child's coping skills, teaching them the value of persistence and that doing well isn't automatic.

Helping Children Handle DisappointmentAcknowledge Emotions
Kids' setbacks often feel personal to parents, says family and art therapist Erica Curtis, MFT. "A parent may be more disappointed – or may assume their child is more disappointed – than the child actually is," she explains. When that happens, you may overreact or respond in ways that amplify your child's distress, rather than help them regroup. Instead, try to hold back and focus on what your child feels.

As your child describes the situation in greater detail, "encourage them to identify and label their feelings," says clinical psychologist Nerina Garcia-Arcement, Ph.D. Assigning specific emotion words to feelings helps kids address them more effectively. A child who says, "I feel angry because my best friend told everyone my secret," is ready to explore potential responses. Labeling emotions gives kids a sense of control and composure, and decreases the chance they'll act out in harmful ways to express their feelings.

Build Coping Skills
As your child explains what happened, prompt them to identify potential reasons for the setback. For instance, you might ask, "What do you think got in the way of you running a faster race?" Instead of one or two obvious reasons, encourage your child to come up with more. There is usually a range of factors, both personal and situational, that may have led to an unhappy outcome.

Explore each reason with your child to identify ways they could do things differently next time. This helps your child move from feeling bad to knowing how to do better. For instance, noting they felt tired before the race started might lead your child to come up with ideas about eating a healthy snack beforehand or going to bed earlier. Specific action steps empower kids to bounce back on their own terms.

Find the Lesson
After the emotions have passed, talk with your child about what they learned. After all, even scientist Thomas Alva Edison saw disappointment as a learning opportunity, famously saying, "I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won't work." The secret: no matter what the outcome, focus on the knowledge gained and skills developed along the way. Maybe your child learned something they can apply to other endeavors. Not winning a competition, for example, teaches them to accept defeat gracefully and celebrate others' successes. It also teaches the importance of second chances. Even if your child can't specify what they learned, share what you observed. The next time your child faces a setback, remind them of how they handled previous situations and encourage them to apply the lessons of the past to new challenges. And tell them that responding to disappointment with confidence, grit and good humor is the key to being a happy, successful person.

Written by Heidi Smith Luedtke, Ph.D.