Has your child had high hopes for something only to be let down, resulting in your child becoming significantly upset? It’s a staple in parenting, right? Maybe it was losing a game, a friend who canceled a sleepover, or getting a lower test grade than expected. Using an adult lens we might look at our child’s reaction and label it “throwing a fit,” “overreacting,” or “having a temper tantrum.” But perhaps there is a more helpful lens to view their behavior.
FIRST AN EQUATION:
When our expectation is high (hanging out with friends) and the expectation is not met (friends don’t come over), the difference is the feeling of disappointment. The higher the gap between expectation and reality, the more intense the feeling of disappointment. With this understanding, the goal is to help your children navigate disappointment and adjust to their new reality.
My five-year-old daughter Anna responds to this disappointment by crying. She cries when she loses a game of Candyland, when she spills her cup of orange juice, or when she loses a race to the bedroom. Crying is her way of adjusting to her new reality. If I view Anna’s crying as a “temper tantrum” or being a “sore loser” then I am likely to react to her by telling her not to cry or I get mad that she is crying, again, when she shouldn’t. It never works, and instead prolongs her adjustment and leaves me feeling frustrated. But when I view her crying as a way of adjustment to a new reality, I can help coach her through it, giving her time and space. In doing so she is supported to take control and can calm herself down.
In houseparenting my wife and I parented a 13-year old whose adjustment to reality was to not talk to us for two days at a time. At first, we took it personally and assumed she was trying to punish us. That perspective didn’t help her adjust well and didn’t allow us to help her adjust well.
Once we understood her behavior was an attempt to adjust, we were able to coach her through being disappointed, even disappointed at us! We learned she needed to be silent to avoid saying hurtful words. And over time as we showed patience in her times of disappointment, we discovered she needed less and less time to adjust to her new reality.
What can be done to help our children work through disappointment and adjust to their new less-than-desired reality?
1. ATTUNEMENT: Attunement is harmonizing with your child’s emotions. Show your child that you are “in tune” with what they are going through – whether you think that is a big deal or not. Validate that their expectations were not met. Show empathy that they feel disappointment. Refrain from responding with frustration over how they handled the disappointment.
2. SPACE: Space seems to be relevant to younger and older children. If the living room is not the best place to cry, lovingly suggest the child’s bedroom. If a child is verbally attacking others, lovingly suggest taking a walk or sitting on the porch. Space is not a punishment for bad behavior, it is a safe strategy for working through disappointment. Refrain from using anger to communicate the need for space.
3. TIME: When your child is adjusting to a new reality, they are vulnerable, and thinking emotionally and not rationally. Children adjust at different speeds. Learn your child’s adjustment rate and give them the patience they need. If the adjustment becomes disrespectful or hurtful to others, give time for the child to calm down before making it right with others.
How you view behavior matters. Consider how a change of lens can also change your response when your child’s expectation is not met.
Unlike our children, adults have an understanding that allows us to see the “bigger picture” of our children’s experiences. When we calmly help them navigate disappointment we show that we will respect them in their time of need. The end result is not a whiny kid. It’s a kid who is confident in their parent’s love and skilled enough to adjust well to new circumstances.