How to Handle Your Children’s Disappointments

by | Nov 11, 2020 | Uncategorized | 28 comments

Handling Your Child's Disappointments

My girls were both far more emotionally mature on their wedding day than I was on mine.

And their husbands were both more emotionally mature than Keith was, too!

Keith and I were just so young, in so many ways (though my daughters were both technically younger than I was when they married). But we grew up, and thankfully we grew up together.

Next week, in our emotional maturity series, we’ll be talking about growth–how to grow when you feel like you’re just not that mature and not that able to handle emotions and responsibilities.

Before we turn to that, though, I’d like to chat about how to make sure we’re raising our children to be emotionally mature.

Behind the scenes, Connor, my son-in-law who runs the technical side of this blog, has been going through all my thousands of old blog posts from many years ago and culling the ones that aren’t relevant anymore. And he found one that I wrote about a Bible quizzing tournament my girls were in, ironically right as H1N1 hit. My girls got it very early, and it affected their performance (though we didn’t understand the significance of it then).

For context, here’s what they looked like just a few weeks before I wrote this, when we were in Hawaii, where Katie picked up H1N1 and brought it home to Canada, even before it hit the news. And then the rest of us got it.

Girls as Pre-Teens

And here’s the story of their disappointment, which I’d like to share with you, followed by a few thoughts I have today, 11 years later:

You know those stories you sometimes hear about the hockey dad who kills the coach that benched his kid, or the cheerleading mom who kills her daughter’s rival? I’m beginning to understand them.

Not that I would ever do it, mind you. But lately my children have had some disappointments, and it is very, very hard to watch your children cry and not be able to do a thing about it.

Of course, these parents’ problems are that they’re living their dreams through their kids, and there’s a whole lot of psychopathology going on.

But in the normal course of our lives, our kids are going to be disappointed, left out, bullied, or laughed at.

And that can be very hard for a mother to watch.

My own girls were in a competition this weekend, and neither did as well as she had hoped. They both did do objectively well; in the top 8 or 9% actually. But that wasn’t what they were aiming for. And they had studied so hard, and prepped so much, and it was hard to watch them. Of course, one of the reasons I think they started to flub things in the afternoon was because this virus was hitting, so it’s hardly their fault. But that sometimes makes it even worse.

When your child is hurting, we want to say, “there, there. It doesn’t really matter. I love you anyway.” But what if it does matter? What if it is a big deal, and you can’t really talk them down?

I know disappointment is a part of life, but my first instinct, when I saw them hurt like this, was to think, “let’s just chuck it all! Let’s not try anymore! Nothing is worth this kind of hurt!”

That’s the wrong attitude as well. Sometimes we’re going to reach our goals, and sometimes we’re not. Everybody has to get used to that. But when your child is crying and saying, “I’m a failure”, or “I’m just not good enough”, it’s hard.

Rebecca Disappointed
Katie disappointed

How Can We Use Disappointments as Teaching Moments in Kids’ Lives–and Our Own?

 How do we make sure that these moments are used to help our kids become more emotionally intelligent, rather than less so? And how can we grow ourselves? Here are two thoughts I’ve had since:

Allow for Sadness–Don’t try to talk them out of it

My cousin, who is a doctor, told me a story of a friend of hers (a counselor) whose 8-year-old daughter was really sad because of something that had happened at school. The mom sat down beside the girl and said, “That’s really, really sad. I think I’ll just sit here and be sad with you for a while.”

That was so interesting, because our first response is often what mine was when my girls were disappointed: we say, “don’t be sad!” We try to talk them out of the negative emotion, whether it’s sadness or rejection or loneliness or disappointment or whatever, because we don’t want our kids to have those emotions.

But that mom knew that it WAS a sad situation, and sadness was an appropriate response, and so you have to give the sadness a chance to be felt so that you can process it.

When we try to talk our kids out of being sad or feeling these things, then we also make it difficult for them to handle those emotions later in life, because they think those emotions are somehow “bad”.

Sometimes parents take it even further than that, and get angry at kids for having negative emotions. “You have nothing to be sad about! When I was a kid, we didn’t even have the chance to compete at anything. We were too busy working, and my mom couldn’t be bothered to make sure we had anything good in our lives. You have no idea how good you have it!” Again, this tells kids, “having a negative emotion is a dangerous and bad thing.” Then what’s going to happen when they’re older and they start to feel something negative? They’ll run away. They’ll deflect it into anger. They’ll laugh it off and never deal with it. Or they’ll stonewall, as we talked about on Monday.

But emotions, in and of themselves, are not bad. Emotions simply tell us what’s going on in the world around us and how that affects us. They’re our body’s way of interpreting our situation. When we don’t deal with our emotions, then we end up causing our body stress. Those emotions don’t go away; they get deflected into our body, or into addiction, or into negative coping patterns. 

When I visited my cousin recently, she also had an “emotions flip book” where different emotions were written on the top of the page, along with ideas of what to do when you are feeling different emotions. The idea is to help kids identify what they are feeling, and then understand that, once they have that feeling, they have different ways of coping with that feeling. Instead of telling a child, “you shouldn’t feel that way,” it helps kids understand, “here’s how I do feel, and here’s what to do now.” 

Emotions Flip Book

So many of our problems with emotional maturity later in life stem from not being comfortable naming emotions or having a wide range of emotions. Teaching our kids when they’re young to identify emotions goes a long way to helping them cope later! 

I couldn’t find exactly the same flip book on Amazon, but this one looks really similar! I think it’s a great tool for helping kids process feelings. And it deals with good feelings, too, not just bad ones!

Be Realistic in How You See Your Kids–and Teach them to See Themselves the Same Way

One more thought on how to teach kids to handle disappointment: Be realistic about how you talk to your kids. 

As most of you may know, Rebecca (my oldest who is almost all our podcasts and who wrote The Great Sex Rescue with me) is an author of her own accord. Her book Why I Didn’t Rebel was published when she was 22. She interviewed a ton of millennials, some of whom had rebelled, and some who hadn’t, to figure out what parenting practices led to kids keeping strong relationships with their parents and making good decisions later.

 

She found seven key qualities in families whose kids didn’t rebel, and one of those was what she called “reality-based parenting.” Your child doesn’t have to be better than everyone else to be good; your child is an amazing person because of who your child is, and teaching your child to accept themselves, with their own giftings and their own limitations, is important in raising a kid who will succeed in life. Admitting that your child isn’t the best at everything doesn’t mean you don’t love your kid or believe in your kid. You just show them that God’s amazing plans for them don’t necessarily lie in a singing career, or even an academic career. You point kids towards their giftings, not towards your own dreams.

I’m going to let Rebecca end this post with an excerpt from Why I Didn’t Rebel, about Michael:

From Why I Didn't Rebel:

When I met Michael, he was in his third year of bio-med and struggling with his faith. I tried to help him reconnect with the Christian community, but he never seemed interested. As a high school student, he had been on top of the world—he got As in all his classes, was captain of the soccer team, and dated the prettiest girl in the school. He was one of the “it” kids in his church’s youth group. All through his life he had never failed—largely because his parents made sure he didn’t.

Michael was fortunate to be naturally smart, but in high school his mom edited all his papers for him, and his dad corrected his math and science homework before he handed it in. Of course, they went over their edits with him to help him learn, but Michael joked with me about how he could get his mom to do his entire assignment for him if he played it right. His parents would coo and fuss whenever he brought back another excellent grade, and he thought of himself as the “smart kid.”

In his mom’s eyes, in particular, Michael could do nothing wrong. In eighth grade Michael was on a swimming team for a while and really enjoyed it. He was only middle of the pack, though, and one day the coach passed over Michael when it came to choosing which of the swimmers went to the regional meet. When his mother found out, she immediately pulled her son from the swim team. Michael described that car ride home as tense—the idea that anyone saw her son as anything but the best had infuriated his mom. For the first time Michael experienced failure, and from his mother’s expression he felt that failure should bring shame.

When he told his family he wanted to go into medicine, they were thrilled—being a doctor was the perfect profession for their brilliant son. They sent him off to university with well wishes and high hopes. He was smart, and he was a good Christian kid—he’d thrive at university.

Or so they thought. Michael went to his first semester filled with hope and excitement for this next chapter in life. After the first midterm season, his average was about a 70—not bad, but not what he was used to receiving. He told me that the first year depressed him greatly when he couldn’t maintain his scholarship and get those eighties and nineties that came so easily in high school.

At the same time, he had been paired up with a roommate who was heavily into the party scene. Michael started drinking with his roommate in their dorm, then started going to parties. He didn’t feel like the smart kid anymore and, in his search for identity, he turned to the party crowd since they made him feel accepted and it helped distract him.

As the years went on, his grades kept slipping and he started drinking more to cope with the failure he’d never had to deal with before. By the end of third year he was on academic probation, had gotten into a habit of partying and sleeping around, and decided to drop out of the program and move back with his parents to retake control of his life and of his faith.

I remember that when we talked about why he was leaving school, he told me, “I just don’t know who I am. I’m the smart kid and I’m dropping out. I don’t know how this happened.”

What would have happened if Michael’s parents had allowed him to fail? What would have happened if they had encouraged him to see himself in reality?

What if I told you that not all teenagers rebel?

And what if I told you that a lot of typical parenting advice makes rebellion more likely?

I interviewed 25 young adults, trying to figure out what made them rebel or not.

Maybe the reason we can’t handle our kids’ disappointments is that we’re parenting as if our kids’ accomplishments define them

As Christians, we know that our worth is based in what Jesus did for us and in the fact that we are made in the image of God. We know that God has a specific purpose for us that He has planned before the creation of the world (Ephesians 2:10). But do we act that way with our kids? Or do we parent in such a way that they believe their worth really is in their accomplishments? That they’re only important if they’re the best in the world’s eyes?

If we believe that God has a specific purpose for our kids, and that it doesn’t need to look like anyone else’s, and that success is not judged as the world does, then how will that affect our parenting? How will it affect how we help our kids handle disappointment? How will it affect what we teach our kids to aim for?

Yes, disappointments hurt. It’s okay to feel that. But let’s keep everything in perspective. When we do that, then our kids can grow up able to handle emotions, and able to realistically see how they fit in to God’s plan.

Handling Children's Disappointments

What do you think? Do you have a hard time when your kids are sad? Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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28 Comments

  1. Recovering from abuse

    I was the child that wasn’t allowed any negative emotions. But my mom was allowed all of them and all the time. So what I have now in emotional maturity, I learned as an adult. Lots of work and all totally worth it.
    I want to comment on this statement and take it a step further: “ But that mom knew that it WAS a sad situation, and sadness was an appropriate response, ” That’s a good statement. I think it can be extended further though. It’s okay and healthy to sit with our children’s emotions even when we don’t think it’s a sad situation. Being empathetic to where they are is teaching them to process their emotions.
    Sometimes we have more information than they do because we know more, have lived through more, or can see a wider scope of the situation. Even if we can “fix” what is causing the sad, it’s still appropriate to help them process their emotions. I learned this from a podcast (but I can’t remember which one) about a well known Bible story.
    When Jesus returned to learn from Mary and Martha that Lazarus was dead, he knew that he was going to raise him from the dead. Wouldn’t it have made sense for him to tell them that there was no reason to be sad because he could fix it? But he didn’t. He listened to their raw emotions. He was with them in their grief. He wept! He didn’t go into fix it mode. He was present to their emotions even when he knew those emotions wouldn’t be necessary after he performed his miracle.
    And that can be applied to parenting. That’s what I want to do. I want to pause my fixing and my tasks in order to sit with the emotions of my kids. I wish I could say that I have that down- but I don’t. It still takes effort and I still fail often. But every time I have chosen that route, I don’t regret it at all. The look on my kids’ faces shows they were seen, heard, and accepted. It’s so worth it.

    Reply
  2. Chris

    Sheila, did Rebecca give you permission to use that picture of her on the blog? The one where she is wearing a number? Just curious.

    Reply
    • Rebecca Lindenbach

      Hi, Chris–as you well know, I am heavily involved in everything on the website.
      Yes, it is OK if a photo of me is used on a website that I contribute to, help run, and am heavily involved with 🙂
      It feels to me, however, that you are insinuating that I wouldn’t be OK with it because I look ugly or it’s not flattering (because, I will say, you have never asked this before of any other photos of me, and you even specifically make sure mom knows it’s not the other, more posed, photo of me in this post), so maybe recognize that it’s a little offensive to all of a sudden ask. Is it only OK for there to be pictures of me looking perfect? Is it your responsibility to make sure I only look pretty?
      I will also say you don’t ask this question of the picture of my sister. So again, this is clearly not a “permissions” issue.
      If it were a photo of someone not involved with the blog, very valid question, especially since so many parents do take advantage of their kids by posting stuff online. It just felt so patronizing because I am a grown woman and I work on this website. And I can’t help but think this is you subtly saying I look ugly because, again, you have never, ever, ever asked this before of my more “posed” pictures. And that’s a really harsh thing to insinuate of a picture of me at 14-years-old. I would be careful how you speak to teenagers around you.

      Reply
  3. Chris

    Whoa. That response went off the rails a tad. No offense intended in my original comment. I think this is why men stop talking. We can’t even express concern without being criticized. And then our wives wonder why we don’t say anything.

    Reply
    • Rebecca Lindenbach

      Actually, I think this is a really good example of how sometimes when men do things that are offensive and are called out, they go into defensive “women are crazy” mode. So let’s talk about the concern you raised.
      If it was permissions: there were other pictures you didn’t call out. In fact, you SPECIFICALLY called out not only a picture of me, but only one picture of me amidst others, clarifying that you weren’t referring to the other. So you’re not worried about permissions.
      If it was about my age: you didn’t ask about (a) the photo where I was younger or (b) the photo of my younger sister, so it can’t be about age.
      I honestly can’t think of what else your concern could be that wouldn’t be an offensive insinuation that (a) I looked ugly, or (b) I shouldn’t ever post any photo where I don’t look picture-perfect.
      I recognize it’s not nice to be called out for calling someone ugly or policing how they present themselves. But instead of saying that women are unreasonable, maybe understand that you insinuated something very offensive and inappropriate and apologize. I’m allowed to be offended if you say something offensive to me.
      If I went to Jared’s workplace and asked Jared’s boss, “Should Jared really be trusted to do that job with his level of intelligence?” that would clearly be an inappropriate show of concern that would be offensive and I would owe Jared an apology. Simply “showing concern” is not always innocent, and sometimes the way we show concern does deserve to be criticized.
      Women are allowed to post photos where we don’t look perfect, but we are too often met with comments like this. You know what? That’s how I looked when I was 14 and pulling faces. And that’s OK! But if a man came up to me at 14 and asked, “Are you sure you want a photo of you like that?” it would have crushed me. So understand that if you did not intend to cause offense, you still can. And the response isn’t to say, “Women be crazy,” the response is to apologize and learn how to not misspeak going forward.

      Reply
  4. Melissa

    Have to be honest Chris, I had the same response to your question as Rebecca. Why are you asking about one specific picture of her when there is also a picture of her with her sister and one of just her sister and you didn’t ask about either of those pictures. Very strange question and your response to her offense at your question is a classic case of gaslighting. You are now blaming her very justified response to a very stupid and insulting question as the problem and as if you are now the victim. By the way, I think you look adorable in that picture Rebecca!

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      You’re awesome, Melissa!
      (And by the way, I’m sorry the comments aren’t threading properly. We’re trying to figure out why! Just happened this week after we updated a bunch of plugins, and we’re working behind the scenes to find the bug. Our comments will thread because we’re working from the back end, but for all of the rest of you–it’s not working. Sorry!)

      Reply
  5. Jane Eyre

    This is a really great post, Sheila (and Rebecca).
    If your kids can’t turn to you when they are sad, they won’t feel like they can trust anyone with their negative emotions. That includes their spouse, friends, pastor, or therapist. You’re setting up to make a mess of an adult.
    On achievement: oh I have a lot of opinions. First of all, if you’re actually set to achieve at a high level, failure WILL happen. If you don’t occasionally fall on your face, you didn’t stretch yourself enough. People who “always succeed” are big fish in little itty bitty ponds.
    Second, tying into that: eventually, you get to the point where the achievement is swimming in the pond. You get better because everyone around you is better than you and it has the dual effect of forcing and helping you to improve. You are forced to improve: if you don’t, you’re left in the dust. You are aided in improving because the people around you are better competition (swimming, running, etc.) or great for a study group. Measuring yourself against everyone around you is foolish. The best MLB batter strikes out a lot. Everyone who fails the bar already graduated from college and law school.
    Third, excellence is a lifelong pursuit. A quarter century ago, Tom Brady was a benchwarmer on his university’s football team. He figured out how to be the best over many years. That doesn’t mean we mock kids who stand out in high school and tell them they will be losers later; you help your kid to understand when it’s time to dig deeper to get what they want and when it’s time to be realistic about their own limitations.
    It seems like a lot of parents are so focused on their kids being “great” when they are kids that their myopia hurts the children later in life. Not that I’m looking forward to my son failing, but I am looking forward to being able to help him through those things when he’s little. Those coping mechanisms and strategies will pay off in decades to come, and if it happens under our roof when both parents are there to love on him and help him through it, that’s a blessing.

    Reply
    • Rebecca Lindenbach

      Jane, you didn’t know it, but your comment spoke to me SO well today. Helped me with a lot of self-compassion after a big blunder I had yesterday. Thank you for such a grace-filled and compassionate take on achievement.

      Reply
  6. Meghan

    This is a reply to Melissa:
    Yep, and it’s also classic tone policing. How funny that we get such a thread during the month Sheila is focusing on emotional maturity.

    Reply
  7. Chris

    Rebecca, I am sorry I offended you. I will not misspeak from now on.

    Reply
    • Rebecca Lindenbach

      Chris, none of us can ever guarantee we won’t misspeak ever again! Thank you for the apology, I think the helpful thing to take from this is that women do not need to be ashamed or embarrassed of being less-than-perfect in a photo, and it is not your responsibility to judge if someone’s photo is not attractive enough. That will help a lot more than simply saying you’ll never say anything offensive ever again 🙂

      Reply
  8. Meghan

    Hey Chris, the problem wasn’t necessarily with the original comment, the problem was the response to being called out. Instead of apologizing and considering why Rebecca responded the way she did, you doubled down and deflected.
    Here’s an excellent post on the gift of being called out and suggested responses: https://everydayfeminism.com/2017/05/allies-say-this-instead-defensive/

    Reply
  9. Andrea

    A friend of mine broke up with a man after finding out that he and his ex-wife let their son stay home from school on days when the school choir was performing because he didn’t make it in the auditions. My friend was 37, she really wanted children, but couldn’t see herself raising them like that. Her boyfriend did not appreciate her input and she says breaking up with a potential father of your children at age 37 was the hardest thing she ever had to do. Luckily, she did meet someone else and managed to have a healthy baby at age 42. But at 37 she worried she might never get to be a mother unless she lowered her child-rearing standards.

    Reply
    • Maria Bernadette

      Andrea, it sounds like your friend had/has a really healthy mindset. That story made me think about how there is so much pressure on single people to JUST MARRY SOMEONE ALREADY!!!
      And then lamenting (often by the same people applying the pressure) when so many marriages end in divorce. If everyone had your friend’s wisdom, there would be fewer broken hearts.

      Reply
  10. Chris

    Megan, in response to your response to Melissa commenting on my level of emotional maturity, no offense taken, in case you were wondering.
    I did go to your link for being called out and the “i’m going to take some time to reflect on this” definitely applies to me as i tend to just react without thinking first.

    Reply
  11. lavender girl

    In the story of “Michael”, it isn’t just the fact that Michael never learned how to not be best, but his parents were counting on their son’s successes to validate themselves and prove how good they were. To them, his “failures” made it seem as though they had failed. They lost bragging rights. As parents, we need to remember that at some point our children will be making their own choices. Those choices are THEIR’S to own. Our job is to teach & to guide. Yes, sometimes their choices may seem to reflect poorly on us (from a world perspective) but what matters is keeping God as our focus not the World response as our focus.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Exactly! We shouldn’t be basing our own worth on our kids’ successes. Keep God as the focus!

      Reply
  12. Kay

    I am working on this with my 11 year old daughter as she is learning the violin. Everything has always come easy to her but there is no “easy” in learning the violin. You just have to be terrible at it but keep going anyway, because that is how you learn. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster, but I am trying to view this as practicing emotional regulation as much as it is practicing the violin.
    I hope I am finding an okay balance. I am trying to validate how hard and frustrating this is, and that it makes total sense to me that she feels disappointed that it doesn’t come easily like everything else. And also I am trying to apply gentle pressure to have her push through the discomfort in those hard emotions, because there are no shortcuts here. “Embrace the suck,” as Brené Brown says. Learning to do hard things is… HARD!

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, I got in terrible conflicts with Katie about practising piano! I wrote a post about it about 10 years ago; maybe I should rerun it. She just hated practising. She wouldn’t count out loud. But she could play beautifully.
      We made her to go to Royal Conservatory grade 7 (I have no idea what that is in the U.S. or if that’s just a Canadian thing), and then we let her quit.
      But now, on her own, she practices and she’s doing grade 10 pieces. But I always wondered if I was pushing her too hard. In retrospect, I’m glad we pushed, and so is she. 🙂

      Reply
  13. Tiffany

    Just a quick comment to let you know that I’m really enjoying the last few posts! I wasn’t raised with emotional maturity and it’s been a fun adult growth process. This aligns so well with all the therapists and behavior specialists advice I’ve been studying in trying to do a better job with my own children. One of my goals is to raise a child that isn’t afraid to try and fail because it’s something I still struggle with today. I know better, but it is a very difficult habit to break! Anyways, keep up the great work!
    Oh and thanks for the amazon link. It lead me down a rabbit hole of things that will help someone like me have some concrete in-hand tools for teaching this stuff to my own kids. A lot of this type thing is ‘duh’ feeling and ‘that’s for hokey people’ because of my background and personality, but it’s actually really helpful!

    Reply
  14. Purplecandy

    I have to admit, I don’t really like this parenting trend on kids’emotions. Yes, as you say emotions provide informations about ourselves and our environnment but they are not the whole picture.
    I became a christian as a young adult and didn’t grow with a deeply unhealthy view on emotions but I learned a lot from the christian perspective that sometimes you have to do what is right and not what you feel like doing.
    I feel unconfortable when I have to apologize, I can be very upset when my husband calls me out on things… And even when I’m sad or upset others still matter and I can’t just react anyhow.
    Yes emotions provide information and we are allowed to feel them but not necessarily to act/react on them. Sometimes you have to push through.

    Reply
    • Maria Bernadette

      You bring up valid points, but I’m not sure why you are correcting the message in the blog post. No where do they say or insinuate that A) emotions are all there is. Or B) that you should let your emotions rule you.

      Reply
  15. Anon

    I felt so sad reading Michael’s story. I was at school with a girl – I’ll call her Ann – whose parents were just like that. They manipulated everything so that she won all the time – one of her family members was one of the teachers which made it easy. Every time there was a competition at school, we all knew we were completing for 2nd place because it was a foregone conclusion ‘Ann’ would come first. She left school having come first in just about everything she did – the one or two times the family hadn’t been able to rig that (e.g. external judging of a live event), she was told that she was ‘unfairly judged’ due to jealousy or that they gave the award to a less talented student to encourage them.
    So she went off to university, thinking she was outstandingly brilliant, and for the first time in her life, came up against people who judged her on her own unaided work. She had a complete nervous breakdown and took years to rebuild her life.
    Her parents meant it kindly because they couldn’t bear for her to be upset, but their very efforts to spare her resulted in far more pain long-term. I think back to the number of times I was upset as a child for coming last in something, and I’m so glad my parents didn’t try to ‘spare’ me. Life is always going to drop unfair stuff on us, and the sooner we learn to cope with disappointment the easier it is.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Exactly! We don’t do our kids any favours when we plow the way for them. I think teaching kids reality is so important.

      Reply

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