5 Tips to Help Kids Handle Disappointment

When your child faces disappointment, it’s normal to share in their pain. Mighty Mommy has 5 tips to assist your child in coping with life’s letdowns now and in the future.

Cheryl Butler,
December 16, 2012
Episode #211

5 Tips to Help Kids Handle Disappointment

No matter how old your child, he or she is going to face multiple disappointments throughout their life. These can range from minor letdowns (not getting invited to a classmate’s birthday party), to major life events (not being accepted to their top-choice college). 

These are part of growing up, and although it’s painful to watch our children suffer when things don’t go their way, disappointment can actually be good for kids, especially when you teach them how to bounce back so they can cope better for future letdowns.

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If children can learn the tools to get over a disappointing situation, they'll be able to rely on them throughout childhood and into adulthood. So today I’m going to share my 5 tips for helping your kids handle life’s setbacks:

Tip # 1: Know Your Role

As much as we parents would like to do everything in our power to make our kids happy as often as we can, it’s just not possible. We do, however, have the important role of helping them choose to be happy.

For example, let’s say you take your child to a special place like a children’s museum that she’s been pleading to go to. At the end of a fun, eventful day you ask how she enjoyed the outing, only to hear “It was OK, but a lot of it was boring.” You will probably be crushed by this flippant comment, but remember: you can’t force your excitement about spending quality time together on your child. The key is to not overreact with a hurtful response, but instead ask a specific question such as “What was your favorite part of the museum?” to encourage your child to see the good parts of the experience.

Modeling appropriate behavior ourselves when things don’t go our way teaches our kids the skills to handle disappointments. It’s important to step back and let them use these new skills when things don’t go badly, which ultimately allows them to be responsible for their own feelings.

Tip #2: Empathize With Your Child’s Disappointment

When your child is hurting from a letdown, begin by acknowledging your child's perception of what happened. Let’s say your daughter doesn’t get asked to the prom. You certainly don't need to agree with her dramatic conclusion that she's the most unpopular 11th grade girl who ever lived. But you can empathize and reflect her feelings.

Say, "I know you are feeling so hurt about this" then get her to talk. To do that, ask rather than tell. “It stinks that you didn’t get asked to the prom! I didn’t get asked to the Homecoming Dance when I was a junior. I hated how that felt. But several of my friends didn’t get asked either, so we had a sleepover at my house, gave each other manicures, and the next day we realized it wasn’t the end of the world. What can I do to help you through this?”  

This at least opens the lines of communication and shows your child that you’ve been in a similar situation. Now she knows she’s not alone. Remember that your child watches how you respond to failures in your own life. It's okay to share your disappointment (as long as you don’t overreact) and it’s important to show how you learned from the experience.

Tip #3: Teach Your Child a Self-Calming Techniques

I read a wonderful book several years ago called Dealing with Disappointment: Helping Kids Cope When Things Don’t Go Their Way by Elizabeth Crary. She recommends that children have one self-calming technique to help deal with disappointment for every year of their age, up to age 12. Crary describes 6 general categories of self-calming tools. They include: physical, auditory/verbal, visual, creative, self-calming and humor. Here are a few examples of each category:


  • Large movements: Examples are running, dancing, jumping, hiking, anything to get their energy out.

  • Breathe in calmness: Teach your children to take a big breath and then blow out the birthday candles, or blow a feather across a table.


  • Talk to someone: Kids need to be heard before they can problem solve. Just listen, uninterrupted and without trying to fix things.

  • Positive self-talk: Model this for kids, showing them how even when you’re angry, you can productively problem solve.   For example, if you didn’t get the job you applied for, you could say “I’m sorry that job didn’t work out for me, but I’m sure there is an even better opportunity waiting.”

  • Listen to music: Learn what kind of music your child responds to when happy or when angry. In our house, we always have fun, upbeat music playing in the morning before everyone heads out to school or work. It helps lighten the mood tremendously.


  • Read a book: This helps give a child focus, calming them. Offering to read a story is a great calming technique.

  • Look outside: Looking outside is helpful in detaching from the feelings of disappointment. I like to play “I Spy” with my kids.


  • Draw a picture: Have your child draw his feelings. This is particularly good for younger kids.

  • Make something: Make brownies, sculpt something out of clay, make a building out of blocks, etc. This helps release restless energy.


  • Get a hug: Physical touch is comforting. Learning to ask for a hug when it’s needed is a great coping skill.

  • Drink from a water bottle: Make the water “magic calming juice.”  This works particularly well for younger kids.

  • Take a warm bath: A bath is a great way to help wash away bad or irritating feelings.


  • Read humor books: Laughter can change body chemistry and help us let go of lingering negativity.

  • Watch funny videos: Invite your child to watch a funny movie with you. Ask how he or she feels after.

  • Find humor in the situation: This helps teach your child to look at things from a different angle. Let kids see you laugh at yourself.

Tip #4: Help Them Find Something They’re Good At

One of the most common disappointments children face are feeling like they’re not as good as their peers. Perhaps your son didn’t make the final cut to play on the school soccer team or your daughter didn’t get invited to join the chorus. 

Failure can be a blessing in disguise and serve as motivation for children to practice harder, study longer, or attempt a different approach. Success isn't always about "winning,” it's more often about finding another path. Help them find something they can be good at that matches their interests and skills. Or figure out another way to approach the goal that takes advantage of their abilities.

Tip # 5: Get Ready for Next Time

Once you help your child through one disappointment, make sure you use the experience to brainstorm ways to fix the next one. If it’s a situation like not earning a role in the school play, you can encourage your child to ask for suggestions from the director on what she can work on to increase her chances for earning a role in the next production. Help her set some specific, attainable goals for the next audition, and then praise her with great enthusiasm when she finally achieves the role!

It’s a good idea to talk to your child about what he or she can do next. How did she handle her last disappointment? What does she think she should do now? Remind her how good it felt when she bounced back from a past letdown. By arming kids with the experience of success and determination, you're providing the cushion they need to fall back on when disappointment strikes.

How do you handle life’s disappointing moments with your kids? Let me know in Comments or post them on the Mighty Mommy Facebook page. You can also connect with me on Twitter @MightyMommy or e-mail me at mommy@quickanddirtytips.com.

Check back next week for more parenting tips. Don’t forget to check out my family-friendly boards at Pinterest.com/MightyMommyQDT

Remember that disappointments are not only a part of life, but they are also valuable in building the necessary coping skills to succeed in life!   Until next time, Happy Parenting!