When your child doesn’t make the game winning goal or ace his test, he may feel disappointed. Here’s how you can help your children deal with disappointments in a healthy way, including helping them calm down, acknowledge and validate the child’s feelings, and help them work hard to achieve their goals.
Twelve-year-old Jordan Wu of Fresh Meadows, Queens, has been studying martial arts at Progressive Martial Arts since he was 5 years old. According to his mother, Elaine Ngai, Jordan was one of the best in his class when he took the test for his black belt last year at age 11. Everyone expected his success, but Jordan failed the test.
“The first day of the black belt test is all calisthenics,” Ngai says. Candidates are required to complete 100 pushups, 100 squats, 100 sit-ups, run an 8- to 10-minute mile, jump rope for 10 minutes, do 10 chin-ups, and do a full split. Jordan wasn’t able to complete the chin-ups or finish the mile in time.
Not earning his black belt was a major disappointment. But Jordan’s mother wouldn’t let him give up. She spent the next six months helping him train for the next test. She bought a chin-up bar so he could do chin-ups at home, and she went running with him to help him improve his mile time. Six months later, Jordan received his black belt.
Jordan says he’s glad his mom pushed him. “Winning my black belt helped me become more confident,” he says. “I’m glad I didn’t give up. Now I look back and I know not to give up because I know what can happen.”
Children will face many disappointments in life, such as not getting the lead in the school play, not getting chosen for the baseball team, or missing a soccer goal. We can’t shield our children from these experiences, but we as parents can help them deal with the disappointment in a healthy way.
Building Coping Skills
“It’s important to help children learn how to deal with disappointment when they’re young so when they are older and have bigger disappointments, such as not getting into the college of their choice or not getting a certain job, they know how to cope,” says Susan Bartell, Psy.D., a mother of three teenagers who lives in Port Washington. “All my kids have faced disappointments,” Bartell says. “Things like not winning elections, not doing as well on tests as expected, and not getting invited to a party.”
When disappointment strikes, it’s important to acknowledge and validate your child’s feelings, she says. Tell your child you are sorry he is feeling bad, and then help him move forward. In the case of not getting invited to a party, point out that the person throwing the party probably wasn’t a close friend, and your child likely wouldn’t have invited that person to her own party.
It’s also important to help children calm down when they are overwrought with feelings of disappointment, says Phyllis Ohr, Ph.D., director of the Child and Parent Psychological Services Clinic at Hofstra University. “You might tell them to think of a relaxing place and imagine [they] are there,” she says. “Pay attention to breathing—listen to the noise your nose makes. You also might tell them to do a silly dance, exercise, take a walk and stretch, [or] go into their room and listen to music. Get them to talk about what they feel when they are anxious.”
After your child has calmed down, she adds, assure him it is normal to feel disappointed and is even normal to cry. Then work on ways to make him feel better.
Perseverance and Positivity
As Jordan’s mother demonstrated to him, let your child know that a little work goes a long way.
“Teachers, directors, and coaches have a great appreciation for kids who put in the time,” says Audrey Kaplan, founder of Applause, a performing arts school for children with locations in Westchester and Manhattan. “Parents should try to find examples of people who were successful after several tries. They should also get feedback from the coach or the director on how their child could improve. Ask what it will take for your child to get off the bench.”
It’s important to teach children to learn from their mistakes and understand how they can do better next time, adds Amanda Lehrman, a teacher of gifted and talented children in third through fifth grades in Edison, NJ, who also runs the blog TheMommaFiles.com. “My students can be quite uptight,” Lehrman says. “They see disappointment as failure, which is not true. If they take a test of 10 questions and they got two wrong, I tell them they got eight right.” It’s important for parents to let their children know it’s okay to make a mistake, she says. For example, a mom could point out that she once made a dinner that no one liked and the family ate bagels instead—but that it was okay.
Merianne Jackson, a Rockland County parent and blogger at chicmom.tumblr.com, says she is a “cup half full” kind of person. “I’m big on gratitudes,” says the mother of Ava, 7, and Andrew, 6. “I teach them what to be thankful for when things don’t go our way.”
Ava plays travel soccer and is very disappointed when she doesn’t make a goal, for instance. “I ask her, ‘Did you have fun?’” Jackson says. “I tell her she’s lucky to be on the team, and that she’s made a lot of great friends.” Jackson’s positive attitude usually transfers to her daughter.
“[Losing] is an important issue to deal with,” says Kathy Sacoulas, co-owner of Progressive Martial Arts. “Parents must learn to teach kids how to mourn the loss and experience how they feel, and at the same time teach them to stand up and try again.”
If you do that, kids will try harder, Ngai says. “They will apply for that college that they don’t think they can get into,” she says. “And they will go for that job that they think is out of reach.”
Dana Klosner-Wehner is a freelance writer who has written features for Newsday, The Washington Post, and The Baltimore Sun. She lives on Long Island with her husband and her two teenagers.