I was asked by the United Church Observer Editor to write this feature on helping kids deal with disappointment.
Helping Kids Deal With Disappointment
Alone on the stage under the glaring spotlight, he looked small and vulnerable to his anxious parents, who sat among the audience in the crowded hall. Silence fell as Jonathan Schut waited for the announcer to deliver the word, the one he would have to spell correctly in order to keep his place onstage.
The nine-year-old had outspelled fellow students at his Prince Edward Island elementary school and met with success at the regional competition. He’d worked hard to achieve his dream – being declared the best speller in his age group in the nation.
The announcer looked up at Jonathan. “Bicaudate,” he intoned. Jonathan took a deep breath. “B-I-C-O-D-A-T-E-,” he spelled slowly.
Disappointment. At nine-years-old or at 19, it comes to all our children at some point. And whether their world crumbles when they’re standing in the spotlight spelling a tough word or sitting beside a boyfriend who confesses he’s “just not that into you,” the feelings are similar. Grief. Embarrassment. Betrayal.
Pam and Mike Schut looked at each other, a big question looming in both their minds. How were they going to help Jonathan cope with this?
Mary Lou Morrison is a counselor in Charlottetown, PE who has worked with high school students for more than 20 years. Kids seek her out to help them deal with a laundry list of disappointments. Divorce. Death of a family pet. Alienation from friends. Changing schools. These are all losses, according to Morrison. And there is a time-tested way to deal with them.
“When there is a loss, we need to grieve,” Morrison says. “We get uncomfortable when children are sad. [As a result], they get the message that we’d prefer not to see them unhappy.”
But glossing over sadness only exacerbates problems. “The losses accumulate and we eventually end up having to deal with them,” she explains.
Ottawa mother Catherine Anthony’s (not her real name) experience shows the wisdom of allowing that time. Anthony’s husband, and the father of her three boys, left the family after 19 years of marriage. The effect on her sons was devastating.
“I could feel the pain just oozing out of them. I wanted to take [it] away, but I couldn’t,” Anthony says.
What Anthony could do was acquiesce to her two younger boys’ desire to drag their mattresses into her oldest son’s bedroom and sleep there every night. She took the time to hang out with them before bed. “I would give them foot massages. I would laugh with them, reassure them that certain things would stay the same,” she explains. The mattress-crowded bedroom became a safe space to grieve the loss of their old family relationship and learn to forge a new one. At the end of six weeks, and of their own volition, the younger boys returned to their bedrooms.
“They did move on, but they had to do it in their own time,” Anthony says. “Just as babies come when they are ready, so does moving on with life.”
Anthony’s dependable presence each night gave her sons the security of knowing they would have a safe place to verbalize their feelings. According to Morrison, this is one of the most important steps in helping young people overcome disappointment.
“That’s part of what they need to do, talk about it,” she says. “We need to listen and acknowledge how painful this is for them.”
Andrew Hyde, a youth and young adult minister with the United Church Presbytery in Ottawa agrees. “Young people need someone to listen and empathize. Often when someone listens to them, they can figure things out on their own,” he says.
Empathetic listening engenders trust, and young people may be able to open up and tell you things that wouldn’t ordinarily come up in a casual conversation. It also can give kids an opportunity to let off some steam.
Ottawa father Steve Johnson (not his real name) tells of driving home with his son who had just been cut from a competitive soccer team. David, who was upset and humiliated, had screamed at his father in frustration. “Later, when we were in the car, he said, ‘I’m sorry I yelled at you. I just needed someone to yell at’,” Johnson says. “[As a parent] you need to give your child some space to adjust; to get it out of their system in a safe environment.”
Morrison seconds that. “It’s important to give them a chance to say [the thing they feel bad about], to stay with the feeling and validate it,” she says.
While it’s never pleasant to see your children go through disappointment, it’s important to let them know that it’s part of everyone’s life. Kids sometimes feel isolated, like they are the “only ones” when they fail in an endeavour, and parents can provide some perspective and encouragement to see the experience as an opportunity for learning and growth. However, it’s important to steer clear of simplistic platitudes, such as “it will build character” or “it will make you stronger.”
“I don’t think disappointment in itself is character building. The character building is in how they learn to go past the disappointment,” Johnson says.
Johnson broached questions and gave suggestions to his son, such as, “okay, what are you going to do?” and “let’s look at your options.”
Jonathan Schut, a talented baseball player as well as a top speller, had a similar experience to Johnson’s son. When he was the last player cut from a Triple A ball team and had to return to a lower-level team, he felt it was unfair and unjust. His parents helped him see a different side.
“We said, ‘you have so much to add to the team you are on.’ We encouraged him to lead, help others be the best they can be and to develop his own skills. There is always room to improve,” says Pam Schut.
“It’s important to get kids to a place where they are willing to invest again. Help them come up with another plan they can get excited about,” says Hyde.
However, sometimes there is just no redeeming feature about disappointment. Pam Schut’s daughter was abandoned by her best friend for no apparent reason. “We just cried together. There was no way we could fix it. It hurt, it was surprising and it was out of our hands,” she says. “All I could say was, ‘this is going to hurt for a while, but it’s not always going to hurt.”
While Schut may have felt inadequate in this situation, she had instinctively said exactly the right thing.
“The big thing we need to do is to show our children that when we feel badly, we cry and we are sad. They need to feel it is normal,” Morrison explains. “Disappointment is part of day-to-day living and there is no way we can protect them.”
Hyde shares that opinion. “If more adults would share their disappointments, it would help young people. It would really encourage them,” he says, noting that the church family also has a role to play. “Jesus came for the broken, yet what most teens experience [at church] is people who seem to have it all together.”
While kids need to see our own disappoinment, they don’t need to see parents acting as if their child’s disappointment is a personal affront. Johnson, who is a soccer coach as well as soccer parent, calls it transference. “When a kid doesn’t succeed, sometimes you are dealing with the disappointment of the parent. It can be really brutal. Competitive parents can really humiliate their kids, “ he says.
“Guard that you don’t live vicariously through your child,” advises Pam Schut. “It’s not about you.”
Morrison cites “The Grief Recovery Handbook” and “When Children Grieve” by John W. James and Russell Friedman as sources of good advice when helping kids work through disappointment. Hyde recommends “A Comprehensive Guide to Youth Ministry Counselling” by Group Publishing as an easy-to-read book offering some straightforward help; and “Messy Spirituality: God’s Annoying Love for Imperfect People” in which author Michael Yaconelli explores the perfectionism that plagues so many in the church.