Why Children Should Experience Disappointment

kids and trophies
(Photo: iStock)

We’ve all seen it: it’s the end of the soccer game, and only one team has won – yet everybody walks away with the shiny trophy.

But perpetuating the “everybody is a winner!” mentality isn’t always best for children’s emotional and psychological development.

As a parent it goes unsaid that you hate to see your child disappointed; it can physically pain you to see them heartbroken or downtrodden from a perceived failure, loss or thwarted desire. As much as you’d like to shelter them from it, you won’t always be able to spare them from life’s many letdowns – but that could actually end up being a good thing.

The reality is life is full of disappointments, and the sooner your child learns how to cope with them the better. Disappointment on any level is a healthy and positive emotion that helps mold and shape a child’s emotional, intellectual and social development. But it’s imperative for you as a parent to actually let them experience it and then actively teach them the value of it.

To reiterate the importance of a parent’s role in this issue, consider this excerpt by author Bari Walsh from Usuable Knowledge, a publication of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “When confronted with the fallout of childhood trauma, why do some children adapt and overcome, while others bear lifelong scars that flatten their potential? A growing body of evidence points to one common answer: Every child who winds up doing well has had at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive adult.”

A big mistake well-meaning parents tend to make is trying to “make it all better,” putting a quick-fix "Band-Aid" on the problem as quickly as possible in order to see a smile on their child’s face again. But by appeasing your child with excessive affection or even buying them gifts to ease the pain, you’re doing more harm than good. While it’s okay to be there for them and comfort them, trying to totally eradicate any disappointed feelings will give your child zero experience in solving little setbacks on their own – resulting in future meltdowns when they come face to face with big setbacks down the road.

In their book Raising Resilient Children, Child Psychologists Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein touch on the value of accepting a child’s failures and disappointments instead of simply trying to “fix” everything.

“Adults should convey unconditional acceptance or love, focus on identifying and applying the strengths or 'islands of competence' of youngsters and not just on 'fixing' their deficits, help children learn to deal with both successes and setbacks, teach children problem-solving and decision-making skills, discipline in ways that promote self-discipline, and create opportunities for youngsters to enrich the lives of others,” Brooks and Goldstein write.     

If you want to help your child, the answer isn’t taking away the pain; the answer is actually teaching him or her to see these road blocks and hurdles as opportunities to grow, learn and continually improve.

Psychology Today gives seven suggestions regarding how to respond to your child's disappointment:

1. Allow your children to feel disappointment about the setback.

2. Don't "spin" the situation to make your children feel better.

3. Offer a healthy perspective on disappointment by asking them what they can learn from it.

4. Support your children, but don't give them a consolation prize.

5. Help your children find ways to surmount the causes of their disappointment;

6. Tell your children that they will survive these disappointments and will achieve their goals if they keep trying hard.

7. Finally, make sure they know you love them regardless of their successes or failures.