Young or old, we must learn to cope with disappointments

Were you disappointed on Mother’s Day? Becky was hoping for the full meal deal from her husband and kids, and all she got was flowers and a card. She acted pleased, but inside, she felt let down.

Bill’s birthday was last week. He was hoping for a new fishing rod that he had hinted was his birthday wish. Instead, he got a cake with frosting.

Disappointment is a universal human experience that starts on day one. Everyone knows, like the Rolling Stones song says: “You can’t always get what you want.” Yet, this common experience can be the cause of sadness, anger, hurt and even intense suffering.

Maria was disappointed with her new boyfriend, John. They had dinner together the other night, and while she was talking to him about her day he was sneaking peeks at his smartphone. She was annoyed, made a few negative remarks and spent the evening sulking. She was hurt and angry. He didn’t understand why she was so distant.

Kids have no trouble letting their parents know when they’re disappointed! Cancel a trip to the swimming pool, and a 4-year-old might kick and scream. Announce the end of video games for the night, and Sarah will storm out of the room. Send Billy’s buddy home early, and there will be a cloudburst of tears. Most of the time, children just let their emotions flow — sometimes to the consternation of their parents. Some kids quickly move onto the next moment while other children hold onto their unhappiness and pout.

While emotional and behavioral responses to the environment have a complex bio-psycho-social basis, it’s difficult to exactly understand what parents can do that will make for better handling of their children’s disappointment. And, it may be challenging for adults to change how they respond to let downs too.

Here are some tips for helping kids (and adults) cope with everyday setbacks:

Help children understand what they are experiencing.

Developing a vocabulary for experience helps kids (and adults) manage emotions more effectively. Tell Billy, “I know that you are feeling disappointed that Joey went home, and you’re angry with me.” These messages help Billy understand his experience and acknowledge his feelings. This is the starting gate of emotional self-management.

Don’t try to make your kid feel better.

Hmm. This seems counterintuitive. Giving your daughter a treat, another goodie or substituting something else she wants as a way of making her feel better, sets up a potentially negative way of coping with let downs. Better to learn how to tolerate and live through negative feelings than to make them disappear.

What about tips for adults? Actually, we are pretty similar!

Label what you’re feeling.

Before that angry, pouty feeling settles in for the night, notice your emotions. Tell yourself, “I’m feeling disappointed about not having that romantic dinner!”

Ask yourself how you want to handle your disappointment.

This simple question is huge. This question forces you to make a conscious choice about how you want to manage your feelings.

Do you want to pout? Do you want to talk to your partner about your disappointment? Do you want to go for a walk? What do you want to do?

Remind yourself that not getting what you want is not the end of the world.

Well, that is obvious, but it’s easy to forget in the moment when you have that sinking feeling. Disappointment is not a terminal disease.

And finally ….

Let go of expectations.

Every moment of your life is unique and fresh. Live the moment, and stop comparing this moment with the moment you wish for.

Dr. Paul Schoenfeld is director of The Everett Clinic’s Center for Behavioral Health. His blog can be found at

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