Using Disappointment to Grow Your Child’s Brain

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Summer feels off this year. No trips, no sleep overs, no movie theaters on a hot day. It’s safe to say we’re all disappointed in some way…I’m really missing our family and feel deeply disappointed that our visits are cancelled for a while. I miss our friends, going to comedy shows. I even miss teaching Saturday School! Disappointment has come in small ways too, like not being able to find certain foods we love at the store. It’s part of the fabric of reality right now, so it makes sense to try to use it as a tool. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, right?

Today I want to teach you how to use disappointment as a way to develop self-regulation and flexible thinking in yourself and your kids. Self-regulation is an executive function; it’s the process of monitoring how you’re doing and adjusting to get into a space that matches the demands of the moment. If, for example, you become enraged in a quiet library, you’re going to need to find a way to realize you’re out of synch with the environment and adjust so you are regulated again. Flexible thinking is just as it sounds. It’s being able to adjust your thoughts as the aspects of your life change. Flexible thinking has really been taxed during our Covid experiences. Being able to adapt to the “new normal” and keep cool about it has been exhausting for our brains.

When we start to feel disappointed, it’s because we’ve had thoughts about something, usually the clash between expectation and reality. We expect one thing to happen, to be available, to go a certain way, and when it doesn’t, our brains sense the clash. We interpret this clash as a fail or frustration, and we feel disappointment. A constant example is the feeling we experience when we think about the people we love but cannot see right now. That’s very disappointing.

There are other, more clear cut examples too. I love fireworks, like really love them—they’re my favorite thing about summer, so the realization that we had to stay home and not see a fireworks display was truly disappointing. My thoughts started racing: “I am so sick of staying home. Look at what we’re missing out on. It won’t possibly be the same this year. I wonder what other holidays Covid is going to ruin. I miss my family on the holidays. I won’t get to see my family again…” The disappointment I thought about spiraled into a doom and gloom avalanche, and I ended up feeling awful.

Feelings are ok. They’re ok to experience and even sit with for a while. I don’t recommend running from them, as our typical avoidance methods are usually unhealthy (I’m pretty sure I ate about 4 pounds of chocolate in April alone). But, our feelings can help us practice some great self-regulation and improve that aspect of our executive function.

When you or your child feels disappointed, pause so you can keep with the initial thought. (This will also help you not spiral like we tend to do sometimes). You can say the thought out loud or in your mind, “I feel disappointed because ______________.” Sometimes our feelings are like toddlers needing attention; they will escalate if you try to ignore them. Instead, you can say “oh, hello” to the thought and feeling, and let it be in your mind for a bit.

When you have some reflection time, you can go through a process to address the disappointment. I’ll take you through my fireworks disappointment. Remember, you can practice this process in your own mind a few times so that you can also help your child get through disappointment too. You’ll be building his self-regulation and flexible thinking and helping him avoid unhealthy coping strategies (like ripping the calendar off the wall—yes, I had a client do that this summer) when he’s overwhelmed with his feelings. Plus, when we can process disappointment well, we won’t be thrown off course when things inevitably don’t go as planned. Flexing those growth mindset muscles!!

Here’s how my thought processing went (and heads up: it’s cheesy when it’s on paper but it worked in my mind):

I feel disappointed that we won’t go to see a big fireworks show this year.

What are the feelings I get when I do get to see the fireworks?

Well, I feel like it’s magic. It’s exciting and beautiful. It’s special because it’s only once a year. It reminds me of summers with my family, when we’d go to the neighbor’s house and celebrate. It’s a time when lots of people come together and share an experience.

What’s my understanding of why we can’t go to fireworks this year?

It’s not safe to be in large groups, even if we wore masks. We’d have to take public transit to get to the show, and that’s risky too. Most of the shows are cancelled this year anyway.

Go back to the feelings I associate with fireworks. What are my top 3 of those I mentioned?

I really value the excitement and magical feeling. I want to feel  like it’s a special day and I’m able to connect with my loved ones.

Ok, let’s start with the magic and excitement. Are there other ways to get that feeling?

I’m not sure really. It’s hard to beat fireworks.

What about making the day special?

That’s something we can do. I can plan special food and drinks. We can set up music and maybe some games, like horseshoes, in the backyard. I can decide ahead of time that it’s a fun-only day and not work or do chores.

What about connecting with loved ones? How can I plan to keep that element of my celebration alive?

Adam will be with me all day, and that is sure to be fun. Maybe I can also schedule a family Zoom or something so we can all see each other on the 4th. Not the same, but it will be making memories, and I know we’ll laugh together.

I’m thinking about my disappointment. It sounds like I’m not wanting to miss fireworks because of the way they make me feel. But, I’ve thought of some ways to get those same feelings this year, when fireworks are not available.

Here’s the framework for processing through disappointment

(and improving your or your child’s self-regulation and flexible thinking):

  1. State: “I feel disappointed because _________________.” Or “I was expecting ____________ but ___________ happened instead. That makes me feel disappointed.”
  2. Reflect: what were you hoping to experience and feel?
  3. Reflect: what’s your understanding of why things worked out this way?
  4. Brainstorm: Name your top 3 feelings. What other ways can you achieve some or most of these feelings?
  5. Restate: “ I feel disappointed because ________________, but I can still feel _______________ by __________________________.”

Practicing mental processing like this can feel cheesy in our own minds, but it is a huge gift we have available to offer our kids! Why not use the disappointment that a pandemic brings to improve our EF skills? Grab that kid, time for this week’s pep talk.

Hey Kid,

Are you feeling like your summer is just “off?” It’s not the same without friends coming over, going out to amusement parks or pools…I won’t make the long list, because I’m sure you are already thinking of it. Chances are, you’ve felt pretty disappointed lately with all the things we can’t do right now because of Coronavirus.

Today your grown up learned how to think about disappointment in a new way. They learned that disappointment won’t go away, and that’s ok. But, we can use our thoughts to figure out what parts we’re going to miss the most and try to find new ways to make those parts happen.

For example, if you’re really going to miss seeing your friend on her birthday because you love to watch her read the card you give her, you could mail it ahead of time and video chat, so you don’t miss out on those feelings of connection. Yes, it’s for sure not the same. It won’t feel as great as being there in person, but having options of things to do instead, rather than skipping those fun things all together, is a great way to handle your disappointment right now. Plus, you’re improving your brain’s self-regulation and flexible thinking…and that’s also a great thing!

Hang in there, kid. These are strange and very tough times. You are certainly strong enough to make it through, no matter what.

Sending you all my love,

Sarah

Photos credits: Thought Catalog, Kat J, Nicolas Tissot.