Navigating disappointment: Support your child through struggles

Small adjustments to your words can help your child navigate moments of disappointment while fostering resilience. Discover those key phrases that validate, hold a boundary, and give space for your child to sit with discomfort without resorting to bribes or distractions.

When kids face disappointment, your instinct is to fix things or quickly make it better by offering other options. The truth is, your child isn’t looking for you to “fix” anything. They are expressing a desire to connect about that disappointment and to know that you sense their angst.

Understanding their perspective.

Imagine your child at a crowded mall, nearing the end of a long day. They’ve walked through multiple stores, waited in lines, handled many (and I mean many) transitions, and now they see the entrance to a bowling alley. All of a sudden, they tell you that they want to go bowling. You check and all of the time slots are taken. Your child is exhausted and the overwhelming feeling of disappointment strikes resulting in a tantrum that you were not prepared for. While this situation may not seem like a “big deal” to you as an adult, it is all-consuming for your child. Your go-to methods of rationalizing, explaining the reason you can’t go bowling today, or offering other places to visit simply aren’t working. So, what’s the solution?

The language of validation.

Remember that all roads lead to regulation. When a nervous system is drained, there is no way that rational thought can occur. During these moments, what you say (and actually don’t say) is incredibly valuable. Being at a loss for words is completely okay because your silence and presence are all that’s needed. Communicating in a way that validates while holding a boundary is also helpful because it supportively shows your child that you are in tune with their discomfort. You are not going to prove your parental authority. You are making a decision for them since moments of dysregulation are not the time to teach or explain how choice works.

Here are some phrases you might find useful:

✓ "I see the bowling place too."
✓ "It does look fun."
✓ "I know you want to go in and today it's full."
✓ “I get it, we’ve had a very long day.”

Notice the absence of "no," "can't," or "but." You are acknowledging your child’s view, respecting their vulnerability, and working through the discomfort with them.

Be there, physically and emotionally.

Going back to presence, it is the most powerful support you can offer. Your nervous system will soothe the dysregulation of your child because, as the adult, you have the skill to welcome the catastrophic emotions and take them on - relieving the stress of “dealing with it” from your child. This is not to say that your role is to quickly make it better. The goal is for you to handle what your child can’t right now, showing them that they can get past this intense disappointment. The challenge for you as the parent is to remain regulated yourself and not take what your child says personally, especially when you hear that “you’re the worst ever” and “we never do anything I want to do.”

Language you can use.

Kids are very hard to reach with words during instances of despair. Wait for an opening and use it as a strategic opportunity with simple, direct language:

These statements emphasize that you understand what unfairness is like, create a shared experience, and move away from correcting misbehavior or instructing your child to “make a better choice.”

Final thoughts.

By shifting how you show up, you change your language, and changing your language means that you are connecting in a valuable way. The value comes with guiding kids to handle disappointment without looking for external reinforcement or a distraction that will prevent them from feeling discomfort. The goal isn’t to prevent our children from ever becoming dysregulated. The goal is to ensure they know, deep in their core, they are supported during their own despair, and can begin to successfully manage unfavorable situations.

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