Behaviour & Emotions

Everything is cancelled: Supporting kids through disappointment

Parenting Place Wellbeing Helping Kids With Disappointment

I’m an introvert, and as much as I like people, cancellations have always offered a silver lining to me. Not so much my children, however. Seeing events and activities they've been looking forward to for months all cancelled in minutes is hugely disappointing. It’s in the best interests of everyone, it’s par for the course, it’s life. We all get that, but watching our kids process the pain of disappointment still tugs at the parental heart strings. It's tough when things we have no control over result in plans once again being dashed. These are big feelings for our kids, leaving a lot of parents lost for words and a little bewildered regarding how best to help.

When it comes to supporting our children through disappointment, it's helpful to remember that this is actually a valuable opportunity for connection. Connection is a great antidote for disappointment, perhaps even the only antidote. It seems overly simple, but to be allowed to feel sad and to share it with someone who understands the sting of the loss is profoundly helpful. As parents, we need not be too quick to stuff a replacement into the hurt. Instead, take time to sit with your child or teen – feel it, share it, then together plan next steps. 

Another brilliant tool for processing disappointment is helping someone else. We can ask our kids – who else is disappointed and how can we get alongside them to share the load?

It seems overly simple, but to be allowed to feel sad and to share it with someone who understands the sting of the loss is profoundly helpful.

Five simple steps to feeling better

An adaptation of Dr John Gottman’s Five Steps of Emotional Coaching is really useful in this season of supporting our kids through some pretty rough waves of unpredictability and disappointment.

  1. Step 1: Notice the emotion or disappointment of our children.
  2. Step 2: Recognise this as an opportunity to connect or teach, noticing our own responses or triggers to their emotion. Parents are also carrying stress and anxiousness at this time so it’s important that we attend to our own feelings too.
  3. Step 3: Help your child name their emotions, eg “You must be disappointed” or “I am wondering if you’re sad or hurt or worried.” Bear in mind that our children will be experiencing multiple emotions, possibly all at once.
  4. Step 4: Have empathy, which closely follows step 3. The “I can understand this must be hard for you” type of approach is key for parenting with connection and supporting our children through tough times. Having empathy powerfully demonstrates “I am in this with you, you are not alone. We are a team who get through things together.”
  5. Step 5: Set limits and try some problem-solving. This could sound like, “The thing I know about you is you are so brave, you are a ‘get through it kid’. Why don’t we have our own little party right here on the lounge floor, we can bake cup-cakes…”

Somewhere there's a silver lining

Finding the silver linings is a valid response to the disappointment of cancellations, not just for the introverts. Lockdowns, for example, presented us with a rather unique opportunity to push pause and do less. Suddenly we had free evenings and could take a break from playing Uber driver for our kids – shuttling them to practise, training, extra-curricular lessons etc, etc. Disappointment when things we were really excited about get cancelled is raw and real, but herein lies an opportunity to stop and find ways to reconnect, reassess and recharge. Cancellations and a subsequently clear schedule can be seen as an unexpected gifts in uncertain times. 

And while we’re looking at the other side of the coin, challenging and difficult times offer a powerful opportunity to build resilience. Yes, life is unfair sometimes, but other times it’s wonderful. This sort of framing helps our children grow in resilience and enlarges their perspective. It can also help develop empathy and gratitude.

As parents, hard times are very much an opportunity to model some resilience and honesty ourselves as we meet our own disappointments. We can be real and share that it was sad hearing that the marathon has been postponed. We can also model an adjustment of our thinking and plan something else. We can show our kids that we're grateful for the chance we had to get fitter while we were doing all that training. Children can be inspired to see the knocks as opportunities, or just another reality of life.

Just kidding about the marathon. Anyone who knows me knows I wouldn't find that disappointing at all.

Ellie Gwilliam

Ellie Gwilliam

Ellie Gwilliam is a passionate communicator, especially on topics relating to families. After 20 years in Auckland working mainly in publishing, Ellie now lives in Northland, with her husband and their three daughters, where she works from home as content editor for Parenting Place. Ellie writes with hope and humour, inspired by the goal of encouraging parents everywhere in the vital work they are doing raising our precious tamariki.

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