Teach kids how to deal with failed expectations so they can move forward with hope.
By Mark Reinecke, U.S. News Contributor
April 23, 2020, at 6:00 a.m.
CORONAVIRUS IS TEARING at the fabric of our lives. Social distancing has changed the ways we interact with others. Everything is done not just at arm’s-length, but 6 feet or more apart.
No parties, no dinners with friends, no sporting events. We’ve drastically scaled back or canceled major life events, from proms and graduations to weddings, funerals, birthdays and retirement parties.
We feel sad, angry, frustrated, and, most of all, disappointed. This is particularly impactful for children and teens. And while it may be easy for parents to gloss over this lingering disappointment, it’s significant for many kids. The concern is that it ultimately may lead them to feel helpless, disillusioned, depressed, and bitter.
So what can be done?
Perhaps the place to start is with understanding the nature of disappointment and why we feel this way. We all have desires, goals, and wishes. We plan ahead and work toward positive outcomes. Disappointment occurs when these goals are not met and the desires are not fulfilled. Inasmuch as we all have unmet goals and wishes, disappointment is an unavoidable part of life. No life is without disappointment and its cousins, heartbreak, despair, regret, and discouragement.[
We feel disappointed, then, when a desired event, a hope, is lost. We feel this way when we aren’t able to realize a positive outcome we’d anticipated. The Dalai Lama noted that the source of all human suffering is failed expectations. We expect our life to be different than it is.
Let’s take an example: high school graduation, a very significant event in teens’ lives. It’s joyous, fun, and, as importantly, teens have worked toward this goal for years. It’s a marker of their accomplishment as well as a step into their future as adults.
The level of disappointment experienced is related to a number of factors. Those include the level of hope and expectation, which is high in this case; the desirability of the event – also very high since most teens really look forward to this; and the likelihood of the event. What senior who is on track to graduate doesn’t expect a graduation ceremony? In addition, the amount of effort put into accomplishing a goal – typically around four years’ worth of effort in this instance – also contributes to disappointment when it’s not achieved – or not celebrated, in this case, with a graduation ceremony.
These factors should be considered when determining how to help your kids deal with disappointment. In regards to the example of the canceled graduation ceremony, a place to begin is acknowledging that your teen may have good reason to feel disappointed. We can start by empathizing with our kids’ feelings and validating those. Give your teen a space to talk through any thoughts and feelings related to this.
A second step would be to consider other ways in which their accomplishment can be celebrated. To be sure, this would be different than expected, but it doesn’t have to be less.[
I recently saw a wedding in New York on the evening news. The couple couldn’t go to a church, and there was no reception with family and friends. Instead, they got married in the middle of a street, with onlookers hanging out of windows cheering. It was a remarkable wedding ceremony, one which will be remembered and cherished for years – and it was entirely different from what either member of the couple would have expected even a few weeks prior.
Can the celebration or event be put off until the future? Can the event be “marked” in a different way?
Beyond this, it can be helpful to understand the event and why it’s important. We don’t want a disappointment (for example, not being accepted to the college of your choice, not making the team you tried out for) to be a defining moment of your life. If the disappointment stems from something we did (my grades weren’t high enough to gain admission; my shot wasn’t good enough to make the cut), this can motivate us to perform at a higher level. We can set new goals, and have new wishes, desires, and plans.
But what of disappointments that stem from a crisis that’s out of our control – such as a canceled prom or graduation due to the coronavirus? Here it can be helpful to have reasonable expectations and to accept that not all outcomes in life are under our control.
It’s a life lesson: Our lives don’t always move ahead in the manner we plan, and certainly not in the timeframe we expect. Patience, hope, flexibility, and tenacity come from coping with adversity and managing disappointment. Managing disappointment and dealing with loss are stepping stones toward resilience.
Finally, don’t ruminate or dwell. This can lead to feelings of depression, helplessness, and bitterness. As grandma said, “Don’t cry over spilled milk.” Focus ahead. Help kids redirect their energy toward new goals, plans, and aspirations. Learn from the disappointment, mark the event in a new and different way, and work toward a bright future