How to help children deal with disappointment

 In Building Emotional Intelligence, Emotion Regulation for Kids


Disappointment is a super tough emotion for kids to deal with. In fact, it’s a tough emotion for adults too!

So let’s talk about how to help children deal with disappointment, because there is certainly a lot of it going around at the moment, right?

None of us wants to see our children disappointed. But right now, with Covid restrictions ongoing for many of us, the disappointment is real. Plans are being cancelled. Schools are being closed and remaining closed. Kids are missing their friends, and birthday parties, and trips to the park, and visits from family. Their favourite activities are on hold. Things they have been looking forward to for months are suddenly off limits. And it’s hard for them.

And for us as parents? It’s heartbreaking. It leaves us feeling helpless. But disappointment is a part of life, that we can’t shield our children from, especially right now. So how can we help our kids manage this huge emotion in a positive way? And can we possibly help them learn something along the way?

Here are 5 things you can do to help children deal with disappointment:

1. Allow them to feel disappointed

We all want to spare our children from pain and heartache. We don’t like seeing them distressed. It can leave us feeling helpless as parents and can trigger big feelings within us, too!

As a result, many of us try to fix, remove or lessen our child’s disappointment, and in the process, we inadvertently make the feeling worse:

  • We distract them – “Don’t cry! Here, have a chocolate”
  • We dismiss them – “It’s ok, you’re fine”
  • We minimise them – “It’s not that bad!”
  • We shame them – “Why are you crying? Big boys don’t act like this!”

What this tells our child, is that their feelings are not important, we can’t handle their big emotions (and therefore, neither can they!) and that big feelings like disappointment are big and scary and should be avoided and stuffed away.

2. Validate how they’re feeling

Instead of encouraging our children to hide what they feel from us, we want to encourage them to express how they feel.

We do that by validating their feelings, and by validating them as people.

When we stay close, and we listen, and we offer empathy to our child, we are telling them, “I see you, I hear you. I understand that you’re feeling disappointed right now, and that’s ok. I’m right here. Please tell me about it.”

What does validation sound like?

  • Oh that’s so disappointing! You were really hoping that would turn out differently weren’t you?
  • I’m sorry we can’t go to the park today. It really sucks, huh?
  • I can see you’re really disappointed. I was hoping to go to the party too!
  • You really wanted that. It’s so hard when we don’t get what we want
  • You were enjoying the library weren’t you? It’s hard to leave when you’re having fun

3. Give them what they wish for in fantasy

Giving kids in fantasy, what they are unable to have in reality, is a great way to offer up empathy and help them feel heard and understood. Disappointment is ultimately an unfulfilled wish. So instead of offering reason and logic to our kids “We can’t go to the party because of Covid” (which will often cause them to dig their heels in further), we can wish with them, “I really wish I had a magic wand that could make Covid disappear! I would wave it over the whole world and then we could all have a big party.”

Or, we can use this strategy to acknowledge their own wishes, “You really wish your brother would let you play with his truck, huh? What would you play with if you could play with anything at all right now?”

Using this strategy to help kids deal with disappointment helps them to feel understood. And once they feel that you understand just how much they wanted the thing they’ve missed out on, they can start to process their feelings and move on. It’s also great because it injects a little fun into your interaction with your child, and while it acknowledges how your child feels right now, it also shifts the focus towards the future and provides a sense of hope and something to look forward to.

4. Help them with coping strategies

Big emotions are tricky for all of us. But they are especially difficult for our small humans. They are still pretty new to these big feelings. They haven’t had a huge amount of practice yet. And disappointment is a particularly tough feeling to sit with.

So they’ll need our help to come up with some strategies to manage their disappointment. If you have a calm down space, this is a great time to gently encourage them to use the space with you and try some of their calming tools and resources. Help them choose some strategies (there are plenty of ideas included in the Mindful Little Calm Down Kit) and practice using them together until your child feels more regulated.

And if you’re out and about? Try our FREE kids calm down cards! They include 20 calming strategies that kids can use anywhere.

5. Brainstorm and problem solve

Once your child is feeling a little calmer, you might be able to brainstorm some ideas to help them solve the problem they’re faced with. Is there another way to deal with the situation? An alternative way to get what they want? A different way of thinking about the situation? A compromise to be reached with someone?

Of course, sometimes there will be no solution, and that’s ok. Sometimes all that is required to help children deal with disappointment is a listening ear and a little bit of time. In that instance you can talk instead about how to deal with a similar disappointment in the future. Or you can simply listen.

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