How to Respond to Your Disappointed Child
Are you unsure how to respond to a disappointed child? Here’s how I’m learning to react when my kids experience small letdowns.
“But I want to ride it!” came the cries of our disappointed child.
Out of our four daughters, she was the one who struggled with anger the most. And, at this moment, her words were bitter with the outrage and injustice of the situation.
You see, of all the rides at this Orlando theme park, this particular one had topped her list of “must experience” attractions. Yet, here we were, staring at a sign that read, “Closed for refurbishment.”
It was more than her six-year-old heart could handle.
To you and me, a closed ride may not seem like a huge deal. Neither does a broken toy, a lost book, or a sibling who doesn’t want to play anymore. Instead, they’re small letdowns.
Disappointing, yes. Life shattering, no.
However, to a disappointed child – at least the ones in my house – these things can feel like significant losses.
As parents, how can you and I respond to a disappointed child when he or she experiences letdowns such as these?
Here’s the Response Your Disappointed Child Might Need From You
It’s tempting to simply dismiss these small losses, right? To instead, encourage a disappointed child to quickly recover and move on.
I’ve reacted like this more often than I can count, which includes that day at the theme park. In fact, up until recently, it’s been my default response. After all, a broken toy can be fixed, a lost book found, and a sibling will eventually want to play again.
But maybe, there’s a better reaction you and I can have.
For the last year, I’ve been writing a book on loss. Not just on the big losses such as death or chronic illness or divorce, but the seemingly small ones too like relocating from one side of town to the other.
And you know what I’ve discovered?
I agree with Mark Twain, who wrote, “Nothing that grieves us can be called little.”
Each and every loss is a reminder that we live in a broken world. One that’s not perfect as its Maker originally intended it to be. And, because of that, our children will experience (if they haven’t already), greater disappointments than closed rides, broken toys, lost books, and uncooperative siblings.
The question is: Will our kids be equipped to grieve these bigger losses in a healthy way when faced with them?
Not if we don’t teach them.
Thank back to how you learned to ride a bike or do a cartwheel. Someone modeled it for you, right? They showed you how. While kids don’t need to be taught to feel grief, they do need to be shown how to process it in a way that helps them work through it.
These small letdowns offer you and me the perfect opportunity to do just that through the way we respond.
Practical Steps for Responding to Your Disappointed Child
How can we do this?
Here are some practical steps you and I can take when we have a disappointed child.
1. Acknowledge and validate the feelings of your disappointed child
When we discovered that the theme park ride was closed, I had a disappointed child. My immediate response was to say, “Don’t get upset. Instead, think about all the rides that are open.”
Here’s the thing. There wasn’t anything wrong with my encouragement for her to focus on the positive, especially at a theme park. Sometimes our kids’ disappointments flow from a sense of entitlement. In this particular case, though, maybe any “rights” she may have felt were something to assess and address later.
Instead, perhaps my first response required different words paired with a different approach.
You see, I missed an opportunity to connect with my disappointed child, as well as to teach her how to grieve letdowns in a healthy manner.
The truth is, she had lost an experience she eagerly anticipated for months. It was sudden. Unexpected. And painful. Her sense of sadness was valid. Simply because there were other rides open didn’t instantly and magically erase the disappointment she felt over missing this particular ride.
My “count your blessings” response unintentionally communicated, “Your feelings don’t matter. Keep them to yourself and pretend to be happy.” It indirectly instructed her to ignore her sadness and not process her grief.
What other option did I have? To validate, or affirm, her feelings of loss.
It sounds involved, but it’s not. It’s as simple as making eye contact with my disappointed child and gently saying, “I know you really wanted to experience this ride. It’s disappointing that it’s closed. I understand why you feel sad and even angry. I think I’d feel the same way.”
As parents, when we take the time to acknowledge and validate our child’s disappointment, we teach them that it’s okay and healthy to recognize the sadness they feel.
2. Take time to grieve with your disappointed child
In John 11, Jesus’s friend Lazarus dies. Lazarus’s sisters Mary and Martha are grieving deeply. When Jesus arrives, instead of immediately raising their brother from the dead, we’re told “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).
Notice that He didn’t instantly jump into action and attempt to fix their pain. Instead, Jesus entered their grief. He not only acknowledged and validated their sadness, but He allowed Himself to empathetically respond.
“Empathy is not feeling for somebody,” as researcher and storyteller Brené Brown explains. “It’s feeling with them. It’s touching a place in me that knows where
you’ve been so I can look at you and say, ‘Me too, Brother. You’re not
alone in this.’”
While my daughter’s loss was a theme park ride, not a sibling like Mary and Martha, her small letdown offered me the opportunity to enter into her grief and say, “You’re not alone.” Again, I missed this opportunity with my response.
Looking back, here’s what I wish I had done instead.
I wish I had hugged her and asked, “Do you need some time to feel sad before we find another ride? Can I feel sad with you?”
When we, as parents, seek to share in our disappointed child’s sadness, we teach them to invite trusted individuals into their pain. We model for them the healing power of vulnerability.
3. Offer your disappointed child hope
God hasn’t randomly drawn the name of my child or yours out of a hat and haphazardly assigned specific life events to him or her. Instead, He’s carefully crafting a unique life story for each of them.
It’s much easier for our kids to believe that this story God is writing for them is good when day-to-day life goes their way. You know, when rides are open, toys are new, book are found, and siblings play happily for hours. It’s harder when disappointment hits.
What hope can we give a disappointed child in these moments?
The hope that God promises to walk through the sadness with them. No matter how hard life gets, they are never alone.
My daughter’s disappointment and anger over the closed ride offered a perfect opportunity for me to do this. In that moment, I could have prayed with her and asked God to comfort her in the sadness. But I didn’t. Instead, I went immediately to “let’s pick another ride.”
As parents, we have the privilege of teaching our disappointed child that the God of the Universe — the Author of their story and ours — cares about our pain. We can do this when our response to their disappointment includes pointing them to Him.
How You Respond to a Disappointed Child Matters
I’ll be the first to admit that it’s hard to respond well to a disappointed child. Specifically, if their disappointment occurs at an inconvenient time … you know, say at a theme park. Yet, I’m learning to be slower to dismiss disappointment.
I want my kids to one day be adults who know how to process loss – both the big and the small – in a healthy manner. And I believe that taking the time to acknowledge, validate, and enter into their small letdowns now will help make that a reality later.