Help For The Holidays: How To Deal With A Child’s Disappointments

What happens when a child’s disappointment threatens to overshadow the happiness and joy you have worked so hard to give them? Read on as Raluca Zagura shines new light on disappointment and how to respond when it happens. 

The winter holidays are important to many families. We look forward to spending time with loved ones, if we can. Gathering around the dinner table, listening to music, laughing, telling stories and playing games.

And, for many children, much excitement lies in eagerly opening a present (or few!). 

But what happens when the wrapping is torn off, a gift is revealed and, instead of big smiles and happiness, your child’s face falls. 

They complain, eyeing the box, that this isn’t what they wanted, or that their sister’s present is sooooo much better. 

The holiday mood disappears faster than a plate of sugar cookies. 

It’s not just your kids

But here’s one consolation. It’s not only your kids who do this. 

In fact, in a poll recently conducted in the UK by a global toy manufacturer, 2,000 parents with children aged between 3 and 13 were asked if their children had ever been disappointed with a gift. According to the poll, over half (52%) said that their children had.

What’s more, the same parents said that sometimes disappointment occurred even if the gift had been exactly what their child had requested. 

So disappointment happens even with presents chosen from their Christmas wish list! 

Did I raise a spoiled child?

So what’s going on? 

It seems like there’s no winning here. Whatever present we get them, even one they wished for, our kids still get disappointed.

Have you’ve ever heard:

  • “I never get what I ask for,” 
  • “This is rubbish!”
  • or even, “Is that all?”

If so, you might end up asking yourself how you managed to raise such ungrateful children. You may feel they are spoiled, or maybe that you’ve failed them as a parent. 

But let’s dial it back (just in time for the holidays). 

Hold this thought close if your child barely looks at a gift before tearing into a new one, or complains about what they’ve received.

You did nothing wrong. 

Also, there is nothing wrong with your child either. 

Here’s a secret. They don’t act this way because they are spoiled or ungrateful.

Here’s why. 

Let’s look at this feeling of disappointment, for a minute, and why it comes up. And why the situation can be hard for us parents.

Disappointment is just an emotion.

Neither good nor bad. 

It happens when we were expecting something and that something didn’t happen or was different than expected. 

Disappointments are normal and natural, and we cannot protect ourselves or our children from every small or big disappointment that occurs in our daily lives. Perhaps the only real difference between parents and their kids is what causes friction.  In most cases, we’ve learned we should hide our disappointment – but more on that later. 

Emotions, when felt, can either be expressed or stored inside. For our children, who dream big and are full of hope about the things they want, tiny (or big) disappointments happen quite frequently. Think about all the disappointments your child may face in a week:

  • They didn’t get to be star of the week at school
  • The chocolate wasn’t big enough
  • Their friend didn’t pick them in their team at sports
  • A teacher didn’t have time to admire their beautiful drawing
  • On a hectic morning, there was no time for a second hug from their parent

Children experience disappointments like these often. Many times, there’s no chance for kids to talk about them, show their sadness, or cry about how it feels for them. 

And it’s these unprocessed disappointments that get stored inside, alongside other hurts, where they continue to build. 

If we think of emotions being carried around in a backpack, we can imagine the bag fills and fills until it’s about to burst. . 

Just as with a real bag, there comes a point where it will hold no more. 

And it’s at this point we will begin to see those feelings leak out. We’ll hear complaints or whining. Kids will struggle to get along. Or tantrums and tears fly.

Children often find holidays a good time to unload

During the holidays, children often spend more time with their caregivers. They feel attention and caring more intensely, and it leaves them feeling safe and connected.What better moment for a good emotional clearout!

They go on the lookout, unconsciously, for a pretext, or a reason they can use, to offload the weight of emotion they’ve been carrying. Often, this can be a tiny issue, that on any other day, your child would take in their stride. A sibling eating the last piece of holiday chocolate. Not getting to hang a decoration on the tree just the way they wanted. Getting ready to go to a grandparent’s house for the holiday. All of these – and plenty more – give them a way to show you their grief. 

And presents? They are a great opportunity too!

  • The present is not wrapped how they like
  • The gift is not the exact color they had asked for
  • The toy is too soft
  • Their sibling’s gift is bigger or better
  • The book smells funny

In fact, anything that isn’t ‘perfect’ makes a good pretext. A reason on which they can pin all the hurt they had felt and gathered. 

With us close by and listening to them, they will clear their ‘emotional pipes’ through tantruming, crying, or raging and yelling “This present sucks”’, “Santa is rubbish!”, “It’s not fair!”, or “Is that it?”

In some cases, they might indeed feel disappointed by the gift, but there might be more to it. 

If you want to know whether their reaction is related to the current situation or not, take the opportunity to observe them closely.

If the emotion is only about that particular moment, they will be sad, they might cry, they might tell us all about their feelings and hopes. This gives us a chance to listen and a chance for them to express and process the emotions instead of storing them inside.

But if their reaction seems ‘out of proportion’, you can reason there’s more going on for them. 

It might be that this disappointment reminds them, unconsciously, of other times they suffered a big disappointment and there was no one by their side to sit with them while they navigated the emotion. Now, they find themselves surrounded by family, showered with love. Finally, they feel safe enough to share the disappointment and the sadness it can bring.

But, what about gratitude?

You might ask yourself how you could fix things. Maybe you want to go out that minute and replace the thing causing the disappointment. Or maybe you think there’s a lesson in there about gratitude and gratefulness. Should you explain how lucky they are, or how it’s fair and they got the same as a sibling or the thing they requested?

But I want to remind you that when feelings flood the mind, the rational part of the brain really is impaired. Lecturing or rational talk is hard for a person to process when they are upset and can actually disturb the offloading process. 

So, talking it through might not have the effect you hoped for, at least at that time.

In fact, the best way to guide your child through disappointment, is by doing very little. 

You don’t have to fix anything or explain anything. You don’t have to buy something else, or make any promises.

Instead, you can just be there with your child as they work through those feelings. 

If the situation allows it and we can handle things emotionally, we might want to look at the whole ‘crisis’ through clear glasses. 

Remind yourself:

  • My child is having a hard time right now, this reaction is not about me as a parent or my parenting style. 
  • My child isn’t spoiled or ungrateful, my child is a good kid and a smart one, using this opportunity to do some emotional healing, some ‘cleaning’ of those emotional pipes. 
  • I know they will feel better afterwards. 
  • All they need me to do is be here with them, listen to them as they pour out all the prickly feelings. Allowing that will make more space for them to feel my love, feel safe and connected. 

As we stay with them through the disappointment, accepting the feelings instead of avoiding, diminishing, or dismissing them, as we offer a listening ear, warm attention, eye contact, or gentle touch, we transmit trust. 

We show them just how much trust we have that they can handle their emotions. We hold the belief in them being able to go through this hard moment and come out the other side.

In Hand in Hand Parenting, Staylistening is what we call this act of listening while your child expresses all of their emotions You can read more about Staylistening here and here.

What happens after your child’s disappointment clears?

Your child will be energized. 

They will feel loved again and connected.  

They will be fresh and able to enjoy life. 

You might even hear them say, “Actually, I love this present, look what I can do with it!”

And because gratitude naturally comes when we’re no longer angry or resentful, you might also hear, “Thank you!”  

Even if they are disappointed, they will no longer be stuck in it. You’ll hear them get creative and resourceful. “I’m sad I didn’t get the toy I wanted, but I’ll use this one and the others that I have and build something!”

You didn’t have to placate them or replace the toy. When the emotion is heard, the disappointment lifts.

Why does a child’s disappointment affect you?

It’s not easy to handle a child’s disappointment, especially when you invest time and energy making money then searching high and low for the best presents. You can’t wait to see the look on their faces when they open the gifts. You wait for those big eyes lighting up, that beautiful smile to spread across their face. 

Then, if instead, we see their sadness, It’s hard!

If the emotional backpack is very heavy, we might see them tantruming or raging, or hear them shouting “I hate Santa” or “You never get me what I ask for!” That can hurt.

Now you have your own disappointment to handle, (and nowhere for it to go if you are focused on your child). 

Even when you understand that their reaction is not about you, the knowledge is not enough to avoid feeling hurt. Rational thinking isn’t enough to prevent you from feeling angry, sad, frustrated, or guilty.

Why is it so hard?

Disappointment weighs heavy on adults as a result of how we experienced it growing up. 

Just like our kids, our disappointments stacked on top of each other one by one, and just like our kids, we often had little chance to shed the feelings that came up. When we did, chances are that we got punished or ignored for feeling this way.

When your child shows disappointment about a gift you put our heart and soul into, you might feel dismay in the moment. It might also push a hot button, bringing up your own stored feelings around this topic from when you were a child.

So, we come to parenting with our own history of this emotion.

Your upsets were likely not heard when you were a child. Instead, most of us heard that you needed to be polite, cover your disappointment, and be appreciative. These experiences leave us tender in the moment. 

But you can be heard now. 

Just as our kids can work through the feelings as long as there’s someone there to listen, so can you. 

This brings us to Listening Partnerships. This is another Hand in Hand Parenting tool that supports parents as they unload their own backpacks in a safe and loving environment. Yes, we have emotional backpacks too! 

Your feelings, whether present or stored, are just as valid as your child’s. There’s nothing wrong with them. You deserve the same listening ear, warm attention and a safe space to release your own painful feelings, and clean your emotional pipes. 

You’ll see that what happens afterwards is that it’s easier to stay calm when your children get disappointed. You’ll be able to stay supportive and warm them while they offload the hurt.

So, if you can, think about disappointment, as you prepare for the holidays. 

  • Think about the first time you experienced disappointment and how those around you reacted to it. 
  • Did you notice this feeling in others and how did that feel to you? 
  • Ask yourself what it feels like when you see your child disappointed and, if you feel an urge to protect your children from disappointment, why might that be? 

I’d like to invite you to search and find that listening ear and warm attention in Listening Time. Disappointment is easier to handle when you have been heard, whether it comes up for you, your children, or both of you together.

And that way any upset over gifts won’t suck away the holiday cheer. 

Here’s to warm, peaceful and connected holidays to you all 🧡🧡🧡

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