Your child comes in the door in tears. He didn’t make the spelling bee. Her best friend is moving away. The cool kids wouldn’t sit with her at lunch. “It’s okay, sweetheart,” you say — and even though you have the best intentions, you’ve just made a mistake.
It’s hard to see our kids shouldering disappointment — so hard, in fact, that we frequently try to shield them from it. But doing so “can set the stage for other, more hurtful and dramatic outcomes. Children need to experience disappointment in order to understand the joy of feeling happiness and success,” says Jodi Stoner, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and co-author of Good Manners are Contagious (Spinner Press, 2009).
connect, empathize and validate
When your child is disappointed, “connect with him right there — what he’s feeling right now. Acknowledge those feelings and validate them as real. Then you can move on to find a positive spin,” says Alan Greene, MD, pediatrician and author of a half-dozen books [most recently, Raising Baby Green: The Earth-Friendly Guide to Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Baby Care (Jossey-Bass 2007)]. Empathize with your child, and let her know that you understand what she’s feeling. Be careful, though, that your reaction doesn’t leave your child feeling that she’s disappointed you, too.
Let kids see how you handle your own disappointments, as well. This helps give them the tools they need to handle their own mishaps, says Greene.
Next, ask your child to talk about what he can do next. How did he handle his last disappointment? What does he think he should do now? “Remind him how good it felt when he bounced back from a past letdown,” says Stoner. Let him know that he will feel good again soon.
If your child is having trouble articulating his feelings, provide him with a starter sentence: “It looks like you’re feeling [sad] because [you didn’t make the team.]” “Kids are great editors,” says Greene. “They may not be able to create that sentence on their own, but they can take your statement and edit it: ‘No, I’m angry because…'”
Keep in mind that the middle school years are full of huge ups and downs. Kids are physically and socially awkward as they transition from children to teens. One way to help them ward off disappointments is to help them find what Greene calls a “zone of moderate challenge” — a place where they’re enjoying themselves but always looking to reach just a little bit higher.
By arming kids with the experience of success, you provide the cushion they need to fall back on when disappointment strikes.