The first time I can remember experiencing disappointment as a child, outside of my own, was when I would go to my mother’s house for the occasional weekend visit. My mother’s son, my half brother, would be anxiously waiting for his father, an alcoholic, to pick him up for his weekly visitation. Soon 5:00 PM would turn into 6:00 PM. 6:00 PM would turn into 7:00 PM. 7:00 PM would turn into Saturday morning, and so on. About half the time, at the most, he would eventually be picked up. The majority of my visit would be consumed with my brother being understandably emotionally devastated by not being picked up.
I am sure he had looked forward to the visit, and even made plans in his mind all week as to all things he would get to do with his dad. My mother, knowing the high likelihood of her ex-husband not picking her son up, had no plan of action as to how she would deal with her son’s disappointment, and perhaps was disappointed herself. What I have learned from that time is the necessity of having a plan to deal with my own children’s disappointments.
My own son recently, during the last week of school, went through three major disappointments. With his anxiety, I concerned if he would be set back in his progress because of these. I immediately adopted a plan.
These are the steps I took:
Acknowledge and Validate: The first disappointment my son experienced was something he had been saving for became no longer available for purchase, or “discontinued.” It is now only available through online auction sites for triple its retail value and the amount of my son’s savings. One thing I remember James Lehman teaching in the Total Transformation is that children’s’ problems, although different from our own, are still problems for them, just like our problems are for us. After my son’s third disappointment, I set aside time for us to talk and I let him know that I understood that it’s very hard to experience disappointment (Acknowledge) and that I am proud of how he is managing his emotions (Validate). Acknowledgement is a simple phrase or two responding to the feelings your child may be having about being disappointed. Validation is giving positive feedback about something you notice they are doing really well despite the disappointing situation such as not losing their temper, lashing out at a sibling, breaking a toy etc.
Encourage Flexibility: The second disappointment to come my son’s way was a sport he looked forward to playing in the summer, and is good at, is also unaffordable – nearly half the cost of his summer camp for just one month. One of my son’s admirable qualities is his willingness to be redirected. When I told him that he would not be able to participate in this sport over the summer, I asked if there was another sport, perhaps in the fall, that he might want to play once school starts. He thought for a minute, the tears stopped and he answered “football.” He was able to consider that football would be just as fun in the fall as hurling would be in the summer. Flexibility is the willingness to move on once something does not work out or a plan falls through. My son is great at being flexible, my daughter not so much.
Offer Alternatives: One reason that my son started playing saxophone when school started was the idea that he would get the 5th grade band award at the end of the year. Each time he was praised for his progress or natural talent by the band teacher, he took that to mean that he was one step closer to receiving the award. At the final school assembly, the band award was presented, and not to my son. My heart broke for him, and at that moment I formulated this plan. When we returned home we had the conversation I described in “Acknowledge and Validate.” I let him know that although he did not win his school’s band award, his progress and the talent he showed in playing the saxophone had certainly won him the Malone Family Band Award. I told him that I would find him a medal like the one given out that night to show that title. He was so happy. He only wanted his hard work to be recognized with an award. He did not care from whom. Offering alternatives can be key in overcoming disappointment, especially with children. And I was eventually able to find something similar to the item he had been saving for, that was within his budget, a few weeks after we had discovered the specific item had been “discontinued.” He was happy with that alternative. I remember the only times my mother was successful in helping my brother after his father did not show up when she had a “Plan B” or if she was able to offer some sort of alternative such as going out to eat.
Disappointment is a tough emotion for anyone, but especially for our children. I think we can encourage them through it with understanding, and patience.