How can we help our children cope with disappointment?
It’s not easy to watch our children face disappointment. We want to swoop in and make it all better. Although I think that swooping can have its place, it’s not always possible—or wise. Our three authors (and their sidekicks) this month offer some alternatives.
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One of the great challenges we face as parents is watching our children suffer or struggle. It is easy to want to make everything comfortable for them. Disappointment is a part of this life on earth. We have expectations. When reality doesn’t match our expectations, we are disappointed.
I think the very first thing that we must do is let our children be disappointed. We live in a culture that believes everything should feel good. Disappointment is a bad feeling. Often as parents, seeing our children uncomfortable makes us uncomfortable. We say things like, “You shouldn’t feel that way” or “Look at the bright side.” The problem is that they don’t learn to live with or in the disappointment. We tell them to change their disappointment.
Jesus provided a beautiful example of living with disappointment when he wept for Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44). He was very disappointed. He felt the disappointment and cried. His Father didn’t come to him and say, “It’s okay, Jesus. I’ll make it better. Don’t feel that way.” His Father, our heavenly Father, let him cry.
So how do I teach my children to deal with disappointment? The first thing I do is model what it is like to deal with disappointment. If I am disappointed because something didn’t go my way or someone hurt me, I tell my children how I am feeling. I don’t want to hide it from them. I want them to see that I get hurt. I want them to see that I pray in the midst of it. I ask them to pray for their momma as I struggle.
As challenging as it is, don’t try to fix their disappointment. Talk through it. We talk about the expectations and the reality of the situation. Were our expectations too high? Did someone not meet our expectations? Is this an opportunity to show forgiveness?
Even if our expectations are unrealistic, the feeling of disappointment is very real. Teach children to put words to their feelings. Let them hear you say you are disappointed. Have them say out loud that they are disappointed.
Finally, let them grieve. Let them be sad or hurt. Invite our God into the hurt and sadness. Let the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit do the true healing.
Jenni Schubring and her husband, Tad, have three sons and a daughter.
I asked my writers’ club to weigh in on this article. The club only has three members: my two nine-year-old granddaughters and me. We meet once a month over hot chocolate or coffee. I buy.
“Would you like to write an article with me?” I asked. “The article is about helping third-graders deal with disappointment. I’ll see that you are included in the byline.” The whole club cheered in approval.
We started by drawing pictures of disappointment. What appeared on our worksheets were drawings of Earth fractured into two pieces, a sobbing heart, and a skull and crossbones.
Then we made up some synonyms. The club introduced me to sorpair (sorrow+despair), desanguish (despair and anguish), and dishappy.
We talked about things that cause feelings of disappointment. The list started with frivolous items (e.g., when McDonald’s ice cream machine doesn’t work). But it soon turned to real disappointments (when I ask God to help me to stop worrying, but he doesn’t; when I make a promise and can’t keep it; when I work hard and realize that I did something wrong or did it for nothing; when someone is mean to me).
“So what’s the best way to handle disappointment?” I asked. Their answers were insightful. Take some quiet time, they advised. “Curl up on your bed and eat ice cream or doughnuts. I go to my room and think. Watching videos can be good.”
Then the advice shifted to involving others. “Finding someone to give you hugs and kisses works.” I was glad to hear, “Don’t give up; try again.” Best of all I rejoiced that my granddaughters counseled, “Read the Bible. Pray to God. Sing hymns.”
I had been mulling a motto in the days before the club met. Often when disappointment strikes kids it’s because they encounter one of life’s many unfairnesses. “When you are disappointed,” I asked, “how helpful is this saying, ‘Life is unfair but God is there’?”
One club member answered, “It doesn’t exactly help me, especially when I’m worried.” Bless her for her honesty. But she also penned on her worksheet, “1 Thessalonians 5:18” (“Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus”). Bless her once more.
The other club member wrote a poem, “When life hands you some sadness And you know you’re falling fast, Remember that on judgment day God will take us home at last.”
How can we help our children or grandchildren deal with disappointment? Invite them to talk about it. They may end up encouraging you through your own disappointments.
James Aderman and his wife, Sharon, raised three daughters and are now enjoying their eight grandchildren, two of whom (Ellie Lambrecht and Cadence Learman) provided input for this article.
Disappointed might be too weak a word. When my daughter was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at age nine, we were devastated.
Although a simple medication put her in remission and we celebrated—God answers prayer!—the disease flared, and we nosedived again. Thus began the cycle: FLARE, med, side effects, med for the side effects, remission, remission, FLARE . . . new med, new side effects, new med for the new side effects . . . all playing against a backdrop of endlessly beeping machines and carpeted waiting rooms.
As I reflect on these difficulties now, it’s easy to imagine that a well-meaning parent might unintentionally say things that twist God’s beautiful promises.
We might declare brusquely, “Well, God makes everything work out for good.” Although true, those words uttered too quickly, too thoughtlessly, can be dismissive, even cruel. They can feel like a mindless pat on a dog’s head.
The same with, “Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3,4). That’s certainly true, but the wisdom is lost on a child who can’t see past her pain, who keeps hearing the echo of classmates snickering because her face is puffy with prednisone. The wisdom can be lost on a parent too. Many a night I pounded on God’s chest: Please. She’s just a child. Enough with the character-building.
I asked my daughter if I’d said anything helpful to her in those early days and, lacking any confidence whatsoever, threw in: “Please say yes.”
She remembered praying together: “Let this medication work” and “Take away this stomachache before the softball game.”
She remembered me telling her that when others were unkind, it said more about them than about her. Usually some pain inside them caused them to project pain onto others.
She remembered hearing that God loved her and had a plan for her, but since we couldn’t read God’s mind, we couldn’t know for sure what it was. So she could simply focus on whatever he’d placed immediately in front of her. She could divide her life into those things she could act on and those beyond her control that she needed to surrender to him.
That’s what she remembers. What I remember is feeling utterly helpless much of the time. But we can’t protect our children from disappointment. We can’t walk their journeys for them. We can only accompany them in our shared vulnerability, be strong when we have to, rage and cry when we need to, and apply God’s promises like cool cloths on a fevered soul.
My daughter’s 25 now and in a prolonged remission. She sits in waiting rooms mostly by herself. She’s made the journey her own, and she’s also grown into the promises. She knows her strength is in Word, water, wine. She knows God answers prayer, but sometimes—often—the answer is no. She knows that peace is in surrender, not control. And I’m biased, but I think she’s also developed perseverance. And character. And hope.
And if she ever wonders, “Why would God allow this? Where is he in all this?” she knows the answer to that too. He’s right there in the thick of it. Jesus, her Friend and Brother—the one who wept at Lazarus’ funeral, the one whose heart went out to the widow of Nain—he sees her and sits next to her, arm around her shoulders, his sighs matching hers.
Laurie Gauger-Hested and her husband, Michael, have a blended family that includes her two 20-somethings and his teenage son.
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Author: Multiple Authors
Volume 104, Number 6
Issue: June 2017
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