It’s Ok To Feel Disappointed: The Importance of Allowing Your Child to Feel Uncomfortable

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My son just started kindergarten and as I was leaving the school one day, an administrator and I started chatting. This woman has worked in both private and public schools all over the country for many years. Her most notable observations in children over the course of her career is “the significant decline in children’s ability to cope with being disappointed.” She shared that parents don’t seem to allow their child to experience being disappointed and it’s seriously impacting the child’s ability to reach their fullest academic potential.

Disappointment happens when our expectation is not met and we realize that we won’t get and/or can’t have what we want. This knowledge usually prompts feelings of sadness. We’ve all felt it and have experienced the emotional and physical wound in our hearts when we don’t get what we want. It’s normal.

Maybe that’s why we (parents) try so hard to protect our children from feelings we deem as negative or uncomfortable. However, it is really a disservice. Instead of shielding our children from those feelings, provide them with age-appropriate coping skills.

It’s important to note that when our brains are overwhelmed with emotions the “learning highways” of the brain shut down and you are no longer able to retain/comprehend/understand what you are learning to your fullest potential.

Consequently, it’s important to not only teach your child things like colors, shapes and letters. It’s also vital to teach them how to cope with their feelings and the emotionality that comes with simply being a human who interacts with others. This type of knowledge is termed emotional intelligence (EQ or EI).

Someone with a high EQ can recognize, understand and manage their own emotions as well as recognize and understand how their behaviors influence the emotions of others. Essentially being aware of how their emotions can drive their behavior and impact other people (positively and negatively).

So how can we teach emotional intelligence, like the ability to cope with disappointment, to children?

Acknowledge the Feeling

First of all, let me say if you (the parent) struggle to identify and cope with your feelings (positive or negative) it is important you practice what I’m asking you to do with your child on yourself first. Get a “feel” for what your child will be going through and use your experience to enhance/educate your child.

For example: When at a friend’s house for a play-date, your child wants to play with a toy someone else has, but the other child is not done playing with it. Your child will more than likely do one of the following:

  • Snatch the toy
  • Wait patiently
  • Scream/cry for it
  • Walk away

Regardless of how your child physically responds, we both can be pretty sure they are feeling disappointed that the toy they want to play with is occupied by someone else. It doesn’t really matter which way your child responded, you can still label and validate the feeling and experience for your child by saying something like…

“I saw that you really wanted to play with X. It’s disappointing when we don’t get what we want and I understand.”

If needed, feel free to share a time when you felt disappointed. Just make sure to keep the moment focused on them.

Refocus the Attention

After acknowledging the feeling with your child you will want to help them refocus their attention. I want to make a clear distinction between helping your child re-center themself emotionally, rather than merely distracting them from their emotions.

Re-centering involves experiencing the emotion and sitting in the uncomfortable space that comes with disappointment, then moving through that feeling into a more pleasant one, like excitement that comes from seeing another toy they may have missed. Or sit in the sadness with them and if you see they are emotionally “stuck” at this point, you can give them a nudge toward another activity or thought.

Distracting involves shifting the child’s attention away from the uncomfortable feeling by ignoring it and shoving it deep down…down into the black metal box that sits at the bottom of your soul and keeps all your “bad feelings” locked up tight with iron chains ensuring its closure along with a 15 digit coded padlock AND a key.

Yes, that is a slight over-exaggeration. Yet, you see where I am going with this, right? Distracting a kid merely tells that kid that bad feelings should be AVOIDED AT ALL COSTS and ignored.

The problem is, more and more studies are coming out showing that “bottled up feelings” end up manifesting themselves in physical symptoms (chronic back or neck pain).

I had a client say they felt like they were carrying the emotional weight of their entire family on their back. Guess what, they had severe back problems which limited their employability, leading to more issues. Again, I’m sure you see where I am going.

When your child is ready to refocus on another activity or toy, say something along the lines of:

“Even though we can’t play with that toy… we could find a different toy or go for a wander around? What would YOU like to do?”

Empowering Through Choice

Giving your child a choice in that moment allows them to feel empowered and in control, which immediately shifts their feeling of disappointment. Yes, they may cry and pitch a fit, regardless of how you approach them. But eventually, over time and through practice, when you bring them “choices,” more than likely they will want to choose one that does NOT include a temper tantrum.

Society in general does not support people who throw fits in public. I don’t believe any child wants to have the label “cry baby” at school or a party. It’s my experience that children desire to learn how to control their behavior. They want to learn how to manage their frustrations and disappointments and not to be laughed at or labeled or pushed to a corner of the room to cope alone.

The Wrap-Up

Human’s must experience negative feelings to be able to truly appreciate and feel joy or happiness. Every yin must have its yang and it’s hard as a parent to watch your child struggle with anything, but especially when your child is feeling crappy. We’ve all been there and seeing it in your child triggers our own natural instinct to protect and shield them from danger.

The problem is you won’t always be around to do that. So, instead of shielding them, arm them with tools of protection like:

  • Providing language to accurately label their feelings
  • Teaching them ALL feeling are normal and ok to experience
  • Modeling for them how you cope/deal with disappointment
  • Celebrating when your child is successful in coping with disappointment

We all have bad days and feel disappointed about things. How we respond to these small, everyday disappointments factor into how the rest of our day goes. Teach your children that everyone feels disappointed at some point, but it’s the working through the feelings and coming out the other side that is what should be focused on.

“It is not what you do for your children, but what you have taught them to do for themselves, that will make them successful human beings.”

— Ann Landers

Bethany L. Cook, PsyD, MT-BC

I am the biological mother of two young children in a same-sex relationship, a licensed clinical psychologist, a music therapist and an ex-communicated Mormon with a wicked sense of humor. My outlook on life is upbeat and contagiously positive. Through raw, real and relatable communication I help others find the greatness within themselves. It is my intent to strengthen the mental health of the individual to empower families and society to be more accepting and tolerant of all people thereby increasing everyone’s quality of life.

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