“Why can’t I go?” my 6-year-old daughter, Sadie, asked expectantly. She had just learned that I was taking her younger sister on a trip to see her grandparents in another state. “I really want to go! Can I go? Please?”
“You have school,” I explained. “And you got to take a special trip with Daddy just last summer.”
As the reality hit that she would be staying behind, Sadie’s hopeful countenance melted into sadness and tears flowed. In that moment, I wished I could take her, but I also realized this was an opportunity to guide her through something that would always be part of her life — disappointment.
The benefit of setbacks
Throughout life, my children will experience disappointment. Not making the team. Not being invited to the party. Failing to get into their college of choice. As much as I wish I could shield them from sadness and see them succeed at everything, it’s just not realistic.
Dr. Todd Cartmell, child psychologist and author of 8 Simple Tools for Raising Great Kids, says disappointment can actually lead to positive growth in our kids. “Disappointment is an opportunity for them to flex with unexpected or undesired situations — a key skill for success and adaptability later in life,” he says.
Here are four ways parents can help children cope with disappointment:
Show them you care. One of the best things you can do when your child is facing disappointment is to let him know you understand. As a family, you will likely have to work through many disappointments together. Demonstrating compassion and empathy can strengthen family relationships, while soothing your child’s sadness.
“Let your kids express their sadness and frustration, and see that you care and understand,” Dr. Cartmell says. “When your kids see that their feelings are important to you, this communicates that they are important to you, which makes them feel valued and safe.”
Help them view losses as opportunities. Instead of focusing on what is ruined through a disappointment, help your child think about what is made possible. For example, you can say, “You weren’t chosen to be on the baseball team, but now you have more time to spend with friends.” Or, “Instead of being the lead character in the play, you get to gain experience being in the ensemble.”
In Sadie’s sadness over not being able to accompany me on the trip, we were able to talk about the special school activities she would be able to participate in while I was gone. We also talked about an upcoming trip we were planning to take as a family. Her disappointment passed as she began to consider new possibilities.
Model “the rest of the story.” One day, when Sadie was 5, she told me that a girl in her kindergarten class was going to be a flower girl for her aunt’s wedding. “I hope I get to be a flower girl someday,” she said wistfully. I told her that I had wished to be a flower girl when I was her age, too, but had never had the opportunity.
A few months later, we learned that we would be attending my niece’s wedding in Colorado. “I hope I get to be the flower girl!” Sadie exclaimed. My heart sank as I explained that the role had already been filled. I waited for the look of disappointment to wash over her face. Instead, she said, “That’s OK, Mom. I don’t need to be a flower girl. You never were.”
In that moment, I realized the power of telling my children about my own disappointments — the part I didn’t get in the play, the academic honor I didn’t achieve and the longer-than-hoped-for wait to meet and marry their father. Telling them about my own unmet expectations allows them to see that it’s OK to let go of some dreams and allow God to replace them with others.
Point them to God’s sovereignty. When life doesn’t go as hoped, help your child remember that God has a bigger plan than she can see. Isaiah 55:8-9 says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Although disappointment is a part of life, we can help our kids understand that we never have to worry or fret when things don’t go as planned. Remind your child of biblical characters, such as Joseph, who endured difficulties and setbacks (jealous brothers, false accusations, prison) as God worked out His master plan.
Opportunities to trust God
My daughter will likely face much bigger disappointments than not getting to go on a trip. The reality is, she won’t get to do everything she desires in this life, and that’s OK. She can trust that when things don’t work out as she hoped, God is fully trustworthy and has a plan.
My goal is to help her gracefully move past setbacks so she can confidently walk in the path God has for her and see disappointments as opportunities to trust Him.Suzanne Hadley Gosselin is a freelance writer and editor. She is the co-author of Grit and Grace: Devotions for Warrior Moms.