How to Help Your Kids Process Disappointment
By Elizabeth Spencer, Crosswalk.com
More times than I can count as a mom, I've waited for news from my children about my children. I've watched my phone for texts and the school door for their appearance. I've studied their words and faces for the answer to one question: are they disappointed or elated? More than once, I've had my answer via a bare-bones, emoji-less message or tears streaming down their faces.
Our kids will run into disappointment throughout their lives: disappointment that they can't have another cookie or that toy at the grocery store. Disappointment that they didn't make the team, win the game, or land the part. Disappointment that they didn't get into their dream school or didn't get the job. When the news on my phone screen or written across my children's faces hasn't been good, I've learned to take a few steps in hopes of helping them process their disappointment and then, at the right time, make progress beyond it.
Put yourself in their minds for a bit. This is the parenting version of the old advice to put yourself in someone else's shoes in order to truly understand them. Coaching our children through the angst of not getting something they want calls on us to put ourselves in their heads. From our adult vantage point, we may well understand that not getting the lead in the play or not making the varsity team are probably not long-term life-altering. But we serve our children in love (Galatians 5:13) best when we assign value to the reality that these let-downs do alter the lives they're living right now.
As parents, we may not have any idea why something our children want—a possession, a role, an achievement, a relationship—is so important to them. But when we "do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others" (Philippians 2:4 NAS), we communicate to our kids, "What matters to you matters to me, because you matter to me."
Don't rush their emotions.
Don't rush them through it. When our children are hurting, our hardwired instinct as parents is to try to help them feel better as quickly as possible. We want to get them to the other side of their uncomfortable feelings via the most direct route. But this can dishonor what our children are experiencing. God's Word is full of proof that God created human beings with a full range of emotions. If our children are, like King David, wondering, "How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?" (Psalm 13:2) and are feeling like the answer to this question might be "a long time," we demonstrate our respect by waiting with them while they walk through—not around—seasons of regret and unmet expectations.
Showing your own emotions to your kids can also be its own kind of ministry by letting them know they are not alone in what they want and hurting when it doesn't happen. When my sister had to tell my oldest niece she hadn't gotten a part she wanted in a musical production, my sister didn't have to say a word: she burst into tears the minute she saw her daughter. Where are kids are concerned, much as we prefer to "rejoice with those who rejoice," we offer a tender kind of solace when we "weep with those who weep" (Romans 12:15 ESV).
Ask them where they want to go next. Do they want to give whatever didn't work out this time another chance? Do they want to reload and try again? If so, encourage your athlete or artist, or student to consider concrete ways they can prepare now for the next go-around. What did they learn from this most recent attempt? Do they need to do something different, or just do what they already did, but more or longer?
When my college freshman found herself in an anatomy class that challenged her academically like no class she'd ever had, she at first applied her usual study techniques to learning the material. But after a few disappointing results on quizzes and tests, she shifted gears and started using a new-to-her method of study involving complex diagrams, every inch of space around them filled with her notes explaining how the pieces fit together. When she got to the final exam section covering the material she'd studied using her new method, she told me, "I just flew through it. It was so easy for me."
On the other hand, sometimes our children need permission to consider the option of just being done - with a sport, with an instrument, with a relationship, with something they've "always done." Our culture is big on "never give up," and "quit" often really is considered a four-letter word. And certainly, some commitments must be honored, and some decisions must be seen through. But as parents, we also need the wisdom to know when love for our kids looks like giving them our blessing to let something go. When I commented that one of my children had decided, after much internal debate, to be done with marching band in favor of something new, a wise friend framed it this way: "choose, not quit."
Reassure them that what comes next may be different, but it can still be good.
When I was a senior in high school, the thing I wanted most in the world was to land the role of Cinderella in our school's production of the Rogers and Hammerstein musical. As a senior, Cinderella was my last shot at the coveted top role—my ultimate chance for the big dressing room and the final curtain call. I took care of the audition and waited for the cast list to be posted. And there it was, at the top, across from "Cinderella." Not. My. Name. I was bitterly, loudly disappointed.
But as it turned out, the role I did get (the ironically named wicked stepsister "Joy") was my dream role, even though it was not the role I'd dreamed of. I'd never had so much fun in my life. It was different from what I thought I wanted, but it was still good. In fact, it was better.
Decades later, I hauled out my Cinderella story when my college freshman, who'd lived for band since fifth grade and had been thrilled to find a college with a low-commitment band open to non-music majors, told me, "I'm not enjoying it the way I thought I would." I told her she had loved high school band so much that anything else was almost certain to be a let-down. I advised her to try to enjoy her new band for what it was - that it could be a good experience even if it were different from what she was expecting.
Sometimes our kids who don't get what they want (or what they think they want at the time) need our gentle counsel that what they do get can be different without necessarily being less. Help them look forward. Reassure your disappointed kids that just because a goal or experience or aspiration didn't work out on the first try (or maybe even on the fourth), that doesn't mean it won't ever work out. Perhaps they weren't ready. Perhaps this wasn't the right time. But maybe in a different season, they will be, and it will be.
Also, encourage your disappointed child to set their sights on what they're excited about down the road apart from the team they tried out for, the role they auditioned for, or the relationship they poured themselves into. Steer them toward pouring some of their time, interest, talents, and resources into an experience not dependent on someone else's (a coach's, a director's, a romantic interest's) decision or choice.
Remind them that God's plans for them are good and future-facing.
For my older daughter's birthday one year, my husband and I commissioned a personalized watercolor print of Jeremiah 29:11--"'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the LORD, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future'"—with the words from the verse presented as if they were a letter God had written just to her.
In these ancient echoes, our disappointed kids can hear the Author of their lives speaking the present and future to them.
My Dear Child,
"I know" (I have complete understanding and insight because I am omniscient—there is no ambiguity or confusion about my knowledge)
"The plans" (not the guesses or the wishes, but the certain intentions of my pleasing and perfect will)
"I" (I who made you, I who formed you, I who call you by name, the I AM)
"Have" (these are current, up-to-date, ongoing, present-tense plans)
"For you" ( specific to you and tailored to who you are, what you need, and the gifts I've given you)
"Plans to prosper you" (my plans aren't meant to just get you by but to make you thrive)
"And not to harm you" (what I have in mind for you comes from my heart of love, goodness, and protection for you)
"Plans to give you" (what I have for you is a gift, not something you have to scrounge up for yourself)
"Hope" (of all the things my plans could give you, the first thing I want them to give you is hope because that drives all other good things forward)…
"And a future" (there is more to your life than what you can see from the day you're standing on right now).
When we guide our children to navigate their disappointment in healthy and thoughtful ways, we set them on a path toward discovering the truth of Proverbs 13:19: "A longing fulfilled is sweet to the soul." And, having walked disappointment's road with our sons and daughters, we find that their fulfillment is sweet to our souls, too.
Elizabeth Spencer is a wife, mom, freelance writer, baker, Bible study facilitator, and worship leader from Battle Creek, Michigan. She writes about faith, family, and food (with some occasional funny thrown in) on her blog, Guilty Chocoholic Mama, and on Facebook. She is the author of the devotional Known By His Names: A 365-Day Journey From The Beginning to The Amen.