Disappointment is a part of life.
Like it or not, we don’t always get what we want. Things don’t always go our way.
Arriving in adulthood being able to work with and tolerate disappointment can be the difference between a life of struggle and a life of achievement and fulfillment.
Some people, when faced with disappointment, just dust themselves off and try again.
They don’t get deterred by challenges or set-backs, and don’t let disappointment prevent them from reaching their goals.
They don’t blame others or life for things not working out. They don’t claim victim status or get emotionally hobbled when things don’t go their way.
They are successful. Resilient. Determined. And happy.
Others respond quite differently:
They give up when things get challenging or uncomfortable.
They bounce around from job to job, or relationship to relationship, never feeling content.
They won’t master anything because they can’t tolerate the failure that’s a normal part of learning something new.
They won’t try anything new or take risks, because they are too afraid it won’t work out.
They struggle. Are unhappy. Anxious. Insecure.
So then what makes a person more capable of handling disappointment as an adult?
What determines if they learn how to handle the inevitable setbacks of life?
It’s having developed those “disappointment muscles” when they were kids.
Mary Tamborski, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and a Certified Positive Discipline Trainer and Parenting Coach, remembers the time that she dropped off her 18-month old toddler to daycare for the first time.
“He was holding onto my legs, screaming and crying, begging me not to go. And you know, my heart sank.”
So she stayed with him for two hours that first day.
Mary knew it didn’t make sense for her to be hanging around the daycare center with her son every day, so called her mother, Dr. Jane Nelsen, for advice.
Jane is the author of the Positive Discipline Series and co-founder of a worldwide training program that has certified tens of thousands of Positive Discipline Facilitators in over 70 countries.
And when Mary called, Jane reminded her of something very important: that it’s normal for a child to cry when they don’t get what they want.
And it was normal for Mary’s son to cry when she left him at daycare. It was nothing to worry about. In fact, it was something to CELEBRATE.
Because he was developing his “disappointment muscles”!
He was learning that he could survive uncomfortable situations, even when they really upset him, and that he was stronger and more resilient than he realized.
He was building a critical lifelong skill.
Mary was HELPING her son when she left him crying on the floor at day care.
Even though it was TORTURE for her. She was doing what was best for him.
When Jane reminded Mary she was building her son’s disappointment muscles, Mary felt a huge weight lift off her shoulders.
She realized that watching her son suffer was harder on her than it was her son. She HAD to let him suffer a little now, to spare him a whole lot of suffering and frustration LATER.
Yes, she could have quit her job to spare her son the disappointment of spending the day at day care instead of with her, but that is only setting him up to fail in the future. By solving his problems and taking away his pain, Mary would have taught him that crying was the solution to ending pain. And that if he complained loudly enough, he would get what he wanted.
As Jane told Mary: “He is in the best environment and he is going to thrive. At 18 months, he is going to develop the belief that he can survive.”
He builds resilience, and strengthens one of the most critical muscles there is: his disappointment muscles.
Despite being a parenting expert and a family therapist, even Mary struggled to resist relieving her child’s suffering and doing what she knew was best for him in the long-run.
Because when you’re a parent, it’s excruciating to watch your child suffer. You want to step in and make it better. You’ll do anything to see them smile again.
However, as Mary says:
“It’s not our job as parents to make our children suffer, but it is our job to ALLOW them to suffer.”
In other words: we have to stand back and let our child struggle. As hard as it is to witness, we have to find the strength and will to allow it to happen.
Of course, you would never want to make your child suffer by withholding love, affection, food, comfort, or medicine. If your child is content, you wouldn’t purposely make their life difficult as some sort of “life lesson”.
But if your child:
Then they may complain. They’ll whine and cry and try to get you to say yes. They may beg you to let them postpone or not have to do it.
But by not reacting to their suffering, and allowing them to wait, to work harder, to follow through—you are helping them build those disappointment muscles.
You are raising kids who will grow up to be stronger, more capable adults!
When you don’t automatically fix their suffering, you’re helping your kids develop confidence in themselves. When you let them suffer, you’re not taking something away from them, you’re helping them achieve something—a stronger sense of their capacity to handle disappointment.
Disappointment won’t be such a scary, foreign experience for them. It’ll be “par for the course” and a normal part of life for them—just like it is for every person on the planet.
They’ll be able to accept disappointment with more equanimity, instead of always running away from it.
They’ll persevere. And they will ultimately succeed.
They can then grow up to be more confident, emotionally stronger adults who know how to handle failure and keep going even when things feel tough.
As parents, we would never want to do anything that would weaken our child’s ability to be happy and capable later in life.
We want them to be able to handle failure. We want them to be strong in the face of adversity and challenge. We don’t want them to give up just because things feel hard.
If you’ve always rushed in to alleviate your child’s suffering, it’s because you assumed that was your job as a parent. You thought the most loving thing to do is to make sure your child is happy and content—and that means instantly relieving any discomfort they’re feeling.
Now that you know that by stepping in all the time, you’re actually making your child weaker and less able to handle life’s challenges, you may be wondering how to go about pivoting in the way you parent.
How can you do this without feeling bad and guilty?
How can you handle your child’s tantrums and tears?
That’s why we decided to turn to some of the world’s top experts and get their insights and advice on how to avoid the most common mistakes with parenting, and what to do instead.
When you subscribe to our free expert advice newsletter, you’ll get information-rich articles delivered to your inbox, with tons of actionable tips and specific advice to help you make positive changes in your parenting approach. These are articles by psychotherapists, authors, speakers and experts with decades of real-world experience working with families.
You’ll also learn:
As parents, we’re going to make mistakes. And that’s okay—mistakes are part of life. They’re an opportunity to learn and do better, for ourselves AND our kids.
That’s why we at Flourish want to give you the tools you need to make your job as a parent much easier, more joyful, and more connected.