Weekend Q&A: Helping Children Cope With Disappointment

 

Welcome back to our weekly Q&A!

This week, a mom writes:

Here’s our top issue right now: How to offer help or coping mechanisms when dealing with feelings of frustration when things are hard or don’t go the way you want. 

After I inquired further on this question, I understood that the parent was referring to the child’s ability to manage feelings when things don’t go exactly the way she wants. This applied to situations as seemingly trivial as when a pet chicken ate from the ground when the child wanted it to eat from her hand.  Big emotions ensue when she tries unsuccessfully to get her way. They have applied new tactics to facilitate more flexible thinking and openness to alternative outcomes. These have improved things to an extent, but the parents ultimately want to know how to help their daughter figure out what to do with her strong emotions as she continues to learn more mature coping skills.

Many parents struggle with this, so it’s the perfect topic for a Q&A post!

I want to note here that the ideas expressed here are simply a collection of the most common problems and solutions that I’ve seen when working with individual families. This is by no means an exhaustive list of strategies and does not take into consideration every possible case. After working with dozens of families over the years, however, I have seen recurring patterns. These are the insights and/or suggestions that I would make, based on some of the most common core issues that I’ve seen over the years. 

Less emotionally charged moments are great opportunities to practice emotional coping skills.

Try not to fix the child’s smaller disappointments throughout the day. Small let downs are easier to appease, but these are the best times for children to practice new emotional coping skills because they are less charged and usually less escalated.  Children need to experience small disappointments in order to learn how to handle larger ones. I’m not suggesting that you let your child walk around in a perpetual state of frustration.  I am saying that children need experiences that allow them to be disappointed so that when larger, more meaningful situations arise, they have some foundational skills for how to deal.

In this situation, the daughter seems to be reacting with extreme emotions for what seem to the parents like minor disappointments. This may indicate a need to practice not getting her way in very small micro-situations–situations that may even feel almost meaningless to the child.  I suggest paying attention to the less noticeable times when the child gets her way.  I’m referring to the smallest, most trivial moments.

How small? 

The child wants a different thing for breakfast because she decides she doesn’t like the pancakes?  

No! That’s too big. Let’s break it down further. 

The child wants to pour her own syrup so the parents let her with their help? No! That’s still too big. 

I’m talking about the microscopic, undetectable-to-the-naked-eye moments. The child wants the syrup on the table but the parents want it back in the fridge (with the promise to get it out if they need more). Yes. This is the scale that I’m talking about. The child knows she will ultimately have it if she wants it, but they are tweaking the situation just a bit by having the syrup in the fridge. 

Practice with the small stuff. The drop of syrup that dripped on her fork so she wants a new fork. Just have her lick it off instead of getting a new fork. This level of triviality is where we get to practice. Or if that’s still too big, break it down further. Maybe it’s having the child wait an extra second before getting the fork so you can finish pouring everyone’s syrup. Whatever it is, it’s gotta be something that will only get a 10% rise out of the child’s usual 100%. 

She may be accustomed to dominating play or interactions with peers and adults and needs stronger boundaries on a more ongoing basis, in situations big and small. The outcome may not bear much weight in the grand scheme of things, but the child will get to practice being flexible and regulating her emotions on yet an even smaller scale. 

Set boundaries around behaviors while still allowing feelings and emotional expression.

While we don’t want to punish feelings, it’s okay to set limits on the behaviors around those feelings. Listen, validate the feelings, be present and supportive. Don’t allow unsafe, harmful acting out.  I personally go as far as to differentiate crying from screaming, because while crying is normal and necessary sometimes, screaming requires a whole different level of tolerance from others nearby.  Screaming is often used as a tool to manipulate the situation rather than an emotional outlet. This isn’t always the case, and the adult can differentiate the child’s motive. Only after the child understands the limits will they find ways to express the feeling without using extreme behaviors.

A child’s big feelings does not dismiss her responsibility in trying to manage her own behavior.  Part of the learning to cope is figuring this out. Parents can’t do that for the child. We can offer words, space, our presence, but ultimately the adult isn’t going to fix the feeling in any lasting way. The solution must come from within the child. Once the child understands that the parent will not try to fix the feelings, she can then move forward and find her own way.

Empathize, but don’t be overtaken by the child’s emotions.

Sometimes it may feel appropriate to relate to the child with a story about when you’ve had similar feelings and how you coped. “It’s hard when that happens. I lost my favorite stuffed animal once, too”. Identification is different than codependent empathy. Don’t feel the feeling with the child or for the child, because she needs you to be strong and to see that just because she’s having feelings doesn’t mean the world is falling apart around her (which is basically what’s happening when the parents’ emotional stability crumbles). The child needs understanding and empathy but not enmeshment.

Allow her to work through it. She may want to talk to you about it, or you may offer some ways to process it. But ultimately, feeling let down for things not going the way she wanted is the only way she can learn to cope with these feelings in the future.

Prepare the child so she can anticipate problems and adapt her expectations.

It may help to prepare your child ahead of time if you anticipate where things may go awry. Giving her a little heads up lets her know that you’re not going to try to prevent an upset, but you’re giving her time to process it.  

Avoid placating feelings.

One of the more damaging strategies I’ve seen that is pretty common is when parents pacify children by disregarding their emotions.   Avoid statements that undermine a child’s experience, such as, “You’re okay” or, “Don’t cry”.  Understand that your role is to be present, but not to fix or get the child to be okay with the situation. 

It may also be tempting to try and ignore the problem or spin the situation to make it look like the child is getting her way. This includes consolation prizes, which first take away a learning opportunity, and second, sets up an expectation that disappointment invariably leads the parents to offer some sort of appeasement.  

Inasmuch as it doesn’t undermine or sidestep the child’s authentic experience, feelings, or perception of the problem, use humor to help her move on. 

Using universal statements like “Life is hard” or “Life is just unfair sometimes” victimizes the child and may create a negative, hopeless worldview. It also communicates, ”Your problem is not unique, life is just hard, so get used to it”. This does not respect the child’s real, true authentic experience. Instead, focus on the situation at hand: “That didn’t seem fair to you” or “You didn’t like that you didn’t get a turn”.

Communicate trust in the child’s ability to succeed.

Maintain the position that you trust your child to get through this. You don’t have to be harsh or firm about it, but when you speak, speak with an authority that she will figure this out.  

One of my most successful tools for helping children build new emotional or social skills is to acknowledge when they successfully navigate what would normally be a challenge.  Point out when the child is being flexible, when she’s moving on, when she’s expressing herself verbally rather than with an outburst, when she seems to be applying some emotional coping skills for herself. Point out these things so that she, too, can witness herself successfully walking through big feelings.  

Also, point out when characters in stories (or people in real life!) successfully cope with disappointment. This offers the child yet another way to conceptualize how to process emotions.

Physical outlets may calm the body and the nerves.

Physical outlets are effective for calming or venting. Deep breathing can calm the body and mind within a few seconds. Walking and moving the two sides of the body in conjunction can help the brain process information and feelings. Some children need deep pressure or to use larger muscles (pushing, pulling, carrying, punching pillows, kicking balls).  Movement can be a useful tool, but if you find that these are the only way to calm your child, I will suggest seeking the guidance of an early childhood specialist who can help you and your child build internal coping mechanisms that can help circumvent such frequent major upsets. 

Keep your cool.

The most important to remember is not to get too rattled by this. Your child will figure this out. You can trust that. You don’t have to do this for her. Just be there and set appropriate boundaries so she can see where her own emotional uncertainty ends. It’s not rocking everyone’s world, just her own. And that’s a safe feeling for a child, to know that she is contained, that her big feelings aren’t rippling outward, endlessly causing everyone else’s core to shake. She’s being held by your firm parameters, your unyielding presence, and your trust in her to get through this.

I hope this helps, and thanks for the question!

Stephanie

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