How to deal with your child's disappointment with cancelled plans

YOU promised your nine-year-old you would drive him to his friend’s house this afternoon but there’s a problem with the car and the visit’s off.

When you have to change an arrangement that your child has been counting on, how do you stay intact in the face of his disappointment?

Your child’s age may well determine how he will react to disappointment, says parent child coach Helen Sholdice, who sees young children (aged 3 to 6) reacting.

“They can throw tantrums, physically hurt parents or siblings or destroy things. They react by acting out. Older children — six to 12-year-olds — may sulk, verbally abuse their parent or become very uncooperative: ‘You didn’t do that for me, I won’t do this for you’.”

Because parents can fear their child’s outburst in the face of disappointment, they can engage in behaviours to fix their offspring’s negative emotions, says Sholdice. Parents give in rather than holding the line.

“Yet, disappointment is an inevitable part of life and by yielding to the child or trying to fix the feeling — maybe by offering a substitute or treat —they are not helping the young person to experience reality. A pattern establishes and when the parent has to bring something hard to the child, the child will have little tolerance.”

How can parents avoid the trap of accepting blame for their child’s disappointment? “Listen carefully to the feelings your child’s expressing. Empathise,” says Sholdice, who offers useful empathic phrases: “You feel let down” or “You’re very cross with me because you thought I could make this happen”.

She says: “It’s OK for your child to feel disappointed — let them experience the feeling.”

She encourages keeping explanations clear and age-appropriate and urges against moralising or lecturing. The same goes for minimising or distorting what the child is feeling because you can’t bear to see them disappointed. A parent can help a child recover from disappointment. After acknowledging how disappointed they feel, ask “would you like to sit with me for a while/would you like a cuddle?”.

Sholdice recommends not distracting the child too quickly from the negative feeling.

“Give your child time to feel their way through the disappointment. Then give them an opportunity to come up with a solution — ask: ‘what can we do instead, now that you can’t do what you originally wanted’.”

Holding the line is a serious task of parenting, says Sholdice. What you want for your child is that when they reach adulthood, they have within themselves the resources to manage disappointment.


* Listen carefully to feelings behind child’s words – this tells you depth of his upset.

* Avoid taking responsibility for what your child feels — instead support him.

* Keep your tone of voice level and calm, kind but firm.

* Frame realistically — ‘the game isn’t over, it’s just over for today’.


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