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The Benefits of Disappointment

06/11/2011 11:37 am ET | Updated Aug 11, 2011

The spring is a bittersweet time for young people. For high school seniors, their secondary education is coming to an end and they are either experiencing the highs of acceptance into or the lows of rejection from their first choice of college. For winter and spring sports athletes, their seasons have come to a conclusion. Many will look back on the year with pride and look forward to the next chapter in their lives with anticipation and excitement. Others will be forced to reflect on the year with disappointment and may approach their futures with doubt and worry. For this group the operative emotion is disappointment.

As parents, you hate to see your children disappointed. They are sad, downtrodden and seem to have the weight of the world on their shoulders. Your heart aches for their pain, and you want to do everything you can to relieve them of that disappointment. But that would be a mistake!

Certainly, disappointment is not a pleasant emotion; it feels really bad, in fact. But that doesn't mean it is a bad emotion to be avoided at all costs. To the contrary, disappointment is actually a healthy and positive emotion that plays an essential role in children's emotional, intellectual and social development. But only if -- and it's a big if -- you and your children understand the real value in helping them achieve their goals.

What Is Disappointment?

Disappointment is perhaps the most immediate emotion children experience after a perceived failure. Disappointment involves the feelings of thwarted desire, loss and discouragement when children fail to fulfill their hopes and expectations -- or those of others. Children are going to feel disappointment when they don't achieve their goals or believe they have let you down.

Disappointment is a natural response to failure, but some children react to their disappointment in ways that increase the likelihood of more failure and disappointment. These children who are faced with disappointment reduce their effort, give up easily or quit altogether. This reaction to disappointment can cause them to feel incompetent and inadequate, which, if persistent, will lower their self-esteem and will definitely prevent them from achieving their future goals. Though some disappointment following failure is normal, children who are hit hard by disappointment mope around the house, look demoralized and feel sorry for themselves for far longer than they should.

'Protecting' Your Children From Disappointment

Your natural tendency when you see your children feeling down is to try to make them feel better. Mollifying your children with excessive expressions of affection or by buying them gifts, though it may bring them some immediate relief and make you feel better, does far more harm than good. Writes the author Allison Armstrong, "Many parents today try too hard to smooth away life's rough edges in the hopes of keeping disappointment at bay ... Children with no experience solving life's little setbacks have a much harder time when they're faced with the big ones." Placating your children doesn't allow them to understand what caused the disappointment and figure out how to not feel disappointed in the future. Your children need to be able to just sit with their disappointment and ask, "Why do I feel so bad?" and, "What can I do to get over feeling this way?" Pacifying your children may also communicate to them that you don't think they are capable of handling and overcoming the setback. Your reaction will only interfere with your children's ability to surmount future obstacles, and it will make disappointment more painful in the future.

The Right Attitude Toward Disappointment

Disappointment is a normal, though difficult, part of growing up. Your children will inevitably experience disappointment in school, sports, the arts and in their social lives. How your children learn to respond to disappointment will determine its impact on their future achievement and happiness.

You can teach your children to see stumbling blocks as opportunities to improve and grow. Offering your children a different perspective on their disappointment -- "I know it feels bad right now, but what can you learn from it?" -- gives them tools they can use to avoid or minimize their disappointment in the future, and to turn the obstacles to their advantage by increasing resilience, motivation and confidence.

After "falling off the horse," your children will naturally feel a brief period of letdown, but then you must encourage them to pick themselves up and get back on the horse -- that is, get back to pursuing their goals. By staying positive and enthusiastic, you can show your children a better way of feeling in response to failure and guide them in finding a way to overcome their setbacks and return to their path of achievement.

Rather than the disappointment disheartening your children and causing them to feel bad about themselves, you can help your children use the experience to affirm their capabilities by showing them that they can conquer their past failures. For example, if your child is struggling in their sport, you can tell her how common it is for young athletes to reach plateaus and how these "flat spots" in their progress are necessary and usually a prelude to another period of improvement. You can also encourage her to keep working hard and express your confidence that her progress will continue.

How You Respond To Your Children's Disappointment

Your attitude toward your children's inevitable disappointments will influence how they responds to life's obstacles. If you also react with disappointment, you are placing on their shoulders the burden of double disappointment: theirs and the realization that they have let you down.

You should view your children's disappointments as positive experiences that prepare them for adulthood. "Childhood disappointment is actually a practice lap on the course to adulthood," adds Allison Armstrong. "If you run interference whenever disappointment threatens, you're setting kids up to run a marathon without ever letting them train for it." You must convey to your children that failure and disappointment are a part of life and that what matters is how they react to it. You can also give your children a boost by showing them that you believe in them, that they should have faith in themselves and that if they keep trying, they will probably reach their goals: "Life is full of setbacks and disappointment, dear, but if you keep working hard, I know you can overcome them."

Here are some suggestions on how to respond to your children's disappointments:

  • Allow your children to feel disappointment about the setback.
  • Don't "spin" the situation to make your children feel better.
  • Offer a healthy perspective on disappointment.
  • Support your children, but don't give them a consolation prize.
  • Help your children find ways to surmount the causes of their disappointment.
  • Tell your children that they will survive these disappointments and will achieve their goals if they keep trying hard.
  • Finally, make sure they know you love them regardless of their successes or failures.