Published Categorized as A look at one emotion, emotional literacy, Understanding emotions

Disappointment can sometimes be quite a powerful feeling. It’s an uncomfortable emotion that can feel like a concoction of frustration, loss, powerlessness, deflation, helplessness, unfulfillment, sadness and longing, and our children often feel it quite intensely.

Disappointment is quite easy to conceptualise: it’s triggered when our expectations are not met. Most times that we imagine feeling disappointment are when something we were looking forward to or hoping for, is no longer happening. The reason why an event was cancelled might impact on how we ultimately feel but snatch what we expected away from us, and disappointment usually arrives.

From It’s OK to Cry by Molly Potter Illustration by Sarah Jennings

But disappointment can be triggered by more than just cancelled events. We have expectations about a lot of things. For example: relationships, how we might see a holiday panning out, what is involved when we offer to help someone, what a new job is going to be like or how much we’re going to enjoy a theatre performance. Anything that falls short of our expectations, will probably induce disappointment.

So maybe part of managing disappointment lies in managing our expectations – especially when it comes to anything involving other people. If two people have quite different expectations about how something is going to unfold, this could result in tension AND disappointment. So communication about expectations could avoid this. For example, if one person’s idea of a weekend away is to take it easy, read books and laze around, while the other’s is to go out and cram in as much sightseeing as possible, it’s probably best that these expectations are discussed before the weekend. To discover these different expectations while away is going to probably result in disappointment and agitation for both parties as they probably won’t have anticipated a compromise, or a weekend apart indulging different desires!

So while you can’t complete a lifetime without disappointment, it can sometimes be reduced or prevented by making expectations clear prior to events. This can be true for your children as much as it is for you. For new or one-off events, the more information your child is given, the less chance of them having unrealistic expectations and ending up disappointed.

And what about the disappointment that cannot be prevented: the one that is triggered by an unexpected and necessary change of plan? Just like all uncomfortable emotions, we can:

  • Acknowledge and validate the emotion. E.g. ‘Yes I would feel disappointed too’
  • Listen attentively to our child express how they feel and why.
  • Teach our children that uncomfortable emotions are to be expected and a normal part of being human.
  • Explain emotions are transient, and while uncomfortable ones can feel like they have taken over, they do eventually pass.
  • Role-model our management of uncomfortable emotions and not let them trigger unreasonable behaviour.
  • Reframe what happened – by changing our perspective. E.g. imagine a time when this will no longer bother us, think about something else we’re looking forward to, consider any advantages to the change of plan.
  • Remember there is a positive intention within disappointment. It’s an emotion that can make us strive harder for our hopes, dreams and goals! It’s also an emotion that can prompt you to reflect upon what happened, possibly learn from the situation and move forward with a little more wisdom and better understanding of how to try and avoid the same disappointment in the future.
  • Practice gratitude – because there are always things we can be grateful for and these can always help us to feel better.