It's okay for kids to feel disappointed

Looking back over my 21 years as a mother, two things are quite clear to me:
  1. I have always loved my children beyond words and best I knew how at the time.
  2. Some of the choices I've made in the name of love were not necessarily in their best interests (nor anyone else's).
Here are a few such choices that come to mind easily:
  • Prioritizing my children's needs over my own (not occasionally, but for years).
  • Giving my children the vast majority of my time, energy, and attention, while saving the leftovers for my husband.
  • Going to great lengths in order to spare them pain, discomfort, and disappointment.
Now, I'm well beyond beating myself up for being human (yes, I had many of those years, too). The majority of what we learn in life happens through imperfect engagement, after all, and no one becomes wiser, stronger, or more capable by watching from the sidelines.

But there's also a great deal of value in reflecting on lessons learned, and one of my own lessons seems particularly essential for today's highly invested and intentional parents:

It's okay for our children to be disappointed.

It's okay if they don't get the teacher they had hoped for.

It's okay if they weren't invited to the sleepover.

It's okay if you can't afford the "ideal" school.

It's okay if Santa didn't bring them what they asked for all year.

Counterintuitive as it may seem, our children don't need us to go to great lengths to create idealized, pain-free lives for them. They need us to model reasonable choices, healthy prioritization, and empathetic responses to disappointing circumstances.

They need us to create safe space within which they can feel disappointment and move through it in a ways that lead to growth.

While we're on the subject, let's take a look at a few other emotions our children need to feel:

Our children need to feel sad.

Our children need to feel frustrated.

Our children need to feel hurt.

Our children need to feel confused.

Our children need to feel angry.

And why? Because these are natural, healthy, purposeful human emotions. Unless we allow for them all; unless we show our children what to do with uncomfortable emotions, they will be limited in their ability to navigate these inevitable challenges as they grow.

Though sensible in theory, holding space for our children's disappointment, pain, sadness, anger, etc., is not always easy. In fact, sometimes it's confusing, triggering, even excruciating for us.

Let's look at a few reasons why:
  1. Not all disappointments are created equal. A "no" in the candy aisle is one thing. An absent parent or an unexpected move can take disappointment, sadness, and pain to a whole new (heart-wrenching) level.
  2. Emotionally engaged children are usually harder to handle and require even more of our already-limited time and energy.
  3. We're isolated in our homes for the bulk of the parenting experience (as opposed to raising our children within close-knit, multigenerational tribes), which means we're exposed to very few examples of how to respond to such emotions in children.
  4. Constant exposure to advertising gives us the opposite message: appease and please our children. Keep them happy if we want them to thrive.
  5. There is often one or more significant adult in our children's lives who is more than happy NOT to disappoint them, making us "disappointers" look like the bad guys.
  6. Seeing them struggle is a guilt trigger for many of us, and many of us already carry more guilt than we know what to do with.
  7. Most of us still have embattled relationships with one or more of these challenging emotions, ourselves. As children, many of us were shamed, punished or ignored when expressing big emotions, which led us to bury them, comply to avoid punishment, and create coping strategies in order to feel loved and accepted. So, when our kids protest or beg or whine or complain, our own shame, guilt, embarrassment, and sense of helplessness are triggered, rendering us less creative and clear in our parenting. Add exhaustion and hurry to the mix, and it's little wonder that we often give in against our better judgment or make choices that put an end the emotion as quickly as possible. Doing so keeps us from having to feel the uncomfortable feelings for very long.
Here's the thing, though. None of these factors point to a reason we shouldn't allow our children to feel challenging emotions, only reasons we don't.

Clearly I'm not advocating for creating experiences that foster challenging emotions in our children, but I am suggesting that as life doles them out (as life inevitably will), we honor them as important learning experiences for both our children and ourselves.

Greater self-awareness, empathy, compassion, and healing are all made possible when we honor, rather than suppress, rush through, or distract ourselves (and others) from uncomfortable emotions.

Here's an example of what I mean, practically speaking:

Last Halloween, my eight-year-old had plans to trick-or-treat with a friend. When the friend cancelled last-minute, my girl was understandably sad and disappointed. Because I adore her and wanted her evening to feel light, magical, and meaningful, everything in me wanted to make her sadness go away. It wasn't until I'd called several other friends, tried to rearrange our plans (to no avail) and racked my brain for a while that I remembered: Disappointment is okay. It's my resistance to her disappointment that's turning this into a problem. A heartfelt, "I know you really wanted your friend to come tonight. That's got to be disappointing, and I'm sorry," is how I ultimately ended our hour-long friend searching fiasco. She was disappointed, and ultimately, she also felt understood.

Empathy and compassion are often more beneficial to a child than all the things we do attempting to "fix" their problems.

Allowing for our children's emotions often requires a shift in our own ways of thinking and behaving. It may mean:
  • Slowing down and holding space while they process through whatever it is they're feeling.
  • Resisting the urge to fix or appease.
  • Rebuilding trust with children who haven't always felt safe expressing their emotions with us.
  • Enduring the criticism of others who are uncomfortable with emotional expression, themselves.
  • Learning to listen empathetically.
  • Teaching them appropriate ways to handle uncomfortable emotions and holding them accountable for their actions and reactions.
  • Giving yourself permission to feel feelings you've previously avoided or repressed.
  • Better meeting your own needs (for sleep, alone time, time with friends, etc…) so that you're able to show up patiently, and have access to your own healthiest emotional responses.
  • Getting support in order to better understand your resistance to certain feelings and how to develop a healthier relationship with them.
My daughters are now 8, 11, 15, and 21 years old. As their emotional lives become increasingly complex, and my ability to protect them wanes, my own emotional wellness matters more than ever. Showing up well for them requires that I own my fears and face them. It means grieving when my heart asks me to, and taking time to be alone. It means being willing to feel pain and breathing it through me, often. It means holding space for myself to feel safe, no matter what it is that I'm feeling.

If you are willing to allow room for all emotions in your family, you will inevitably come face-to-face with strong emotional triggers of your own. Be gentle with yourself as these come up. Be kind to yourself as your journey unfolds. While our children learn to love others by observing us love others, they learn to love themselves by watching us love ourselves.

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One of my most heartfelt passions is supporting women toward the realization of fulfilling, empowered and emotionally rich lives. If you feel you could use the support of a seasoned mother and life coach as you find YOUR way (and you're ready to take responsibility for the quality of your life), please reach out! Your first session is on me.