Helping Children Deal with Disappointment

110425-M-MM918-077Kara was very excited! Mom was finally coming home after an 8-month deployment, which to 4-year-old Kara seemed like forever.  She and her dad had made a paper chain to count down the days until Mom came home. Every morning after breakfast she would tear off another link and count how many days were left. It was always the first thing she would tell her child care provider, Deanne, when she walked in the door.

Today when Kara came in, Deanne immediately noticed that something was wrong. Kara clearly had been crying and she clung to her dad’s leg. When Deanne gave Dad a questioning look, he quietly said, “Kara’s mom’s homecoming has been delayed. With only six days left, her orders have changed – it’s going to be another three weeks. Kara is devastated….well, we both are.” Deanne’s heart sank. How was she going to help this precious little girl through such a huge disappointment?

Events don’t always turn out the way we expect them to…not in life and certainly not in military life! Dealing with disappointments is hard enough for adults, but for young children who don’t have the reasoning skills, emotional maturity, or past experience that we adults do, it’s especially hard. They need all the support we can give them to not only weather the disappointment but to develop resilience skills that will serve them the next time disappointment comes – which it inevitably will!

Here are three steps that you can take with the young children in your care when a disappointment throws them for a loop. These steps will help, whether they are facing the small disappointments that part of everyday life or one as large and upsetting as Kara’s.

Acknowledge Feelings

The first step in helping a child bounce back from disappointment is to listen to the emotion she is expressing (either directly, in the words she says, or indirectly, through her behavior) and let her know you hear and understand. Sometimes adults want to rush too quickly through the unhappiness, trying to distract children or minimize the emotions (“Don’t cry…it’s okay.”). While this might make us feel better, it sends the unintentional message to kids that they can’t be sad around us or that they shouldn’t feel sad or angry. We don’t need to dwell on it overly long, but we do need to acknowledge their emotions: “That’s so disappointing, Kara. You and your dad are both sad, aren’t you? I would be sad, too, if I were expecting my mom to come and she couldn’t.” It’s amazing how simply listening and empathizing can help children (and adults!) feel ready to move beyond their hurt.


Once we’ve addressed the emotions of the situation, then it’s time to turn the focus to the child’s thinking. Now the best way to help is to turn her thinking from the negative aspects of the situation that she can’t change to thinking about positive aspects of the future, a resiliency strategy sometimes called “reframing.” In Kara’s situation, Deanne might help her focus her thoughts on when her mom does come home, even though it will be later than expected. Deanne can tap into Kara’s imagination and talk with her about what that will feel like when she sees her mom and what she would like to do with her once her mom is home. Focusing on positive events in the future helps Kara feel hopeful, and hope is key to dealing with disappointment. It reinforces the message that, although this feels bad now, it’s temporary – we’ll get through it.

child's drawing up closePrompt Action

A final step that we can take to support a disappointed child is to encourage her to think about something that she can do. There are many things about military children’s lives that they have no control over. But that doesn’t mean they have to feel completely helpless. Another key characteristic of resilient people is that, once they have focused on a positive future (reframing), they take action to get there. What might that mean for Kara? There are lots of things that Deanne could suggest to Kara. Action could be as simple as encouraging Kara to draw a picture for her mom to help her mom feel better. Or it could be something as engaging as asking Kara to help plan a special “Welcome Home” party at child care for when her mom is home. The goal is to think about the kinds of things that the individual child enjoys doing and suggest ways that he or she could put those abilities and interests into action. We all feel better when we can do something postive in the face of a difficult situation, and children are certainly no different!

As much as parents and other caring adults may want to protect children from ever experiencing disappointment, we can’t. So instead we help children learn and practice the attitudes and skills of bouncing back from disappointment. That is a gift that will serve them well for the rest of their lives.

If you are interested in digging more deeply into what research says about developing resiliency in children, check out “Resiliency: What We Have Learned,” by Bonnie Benard (2004, published by WestEd).


This blog post was written by Kathy Reschke, Child Care Leader at Military Families Learning Network.

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