What Will I do When My Child Disappoints Me?

Julie A. Hanks, MSW, LCSW, BCD; Founder & Clinical Director, Wasatch Family Therapy shares her tips for dealing with disappointment as a parent.

You hold your treasured newborn in your arms and dream of raising the best-behaved, most brilliant, talented and beautiful child the world has ever known. However, sleepless nights, crying spells, tantrums, and picky eating soon challenge your dream of having a “perfect” child. Welcome to your first dose of unmet expectations.

Those inevitable disappointments and dashed hopes can help you as parents learn more about yourself, let go of your own expectations, and allow your child to develop into who they will become. As a wife and mother of 4 children ranging from toddlers to teenagers, I’ve experienced my share of challenges and disappointments!

Here are 6 tips and some of my own song lyrics that may help you answer life’s most difficult question, “What will I do when my child disappoints me?”

1) Feel Your Feelings

“Just put on a happy face and pretend everything is fine” may work short-term but it is not a healthy long-term coping strategy for dealing with parental disappointment. Allow yourself to experience a full range of your emotions: anger, sadness, fear… It’s helpful to think of emotions as “E-motion” or “energy in motion”. The energy needs to go somewhere. Whether its journaling, talking with a family member or friend, going for a walk, or gardening, allow yourself time experience your emotions and move through disappointment, rather than staying stuck in it. Pain has a way of teaching us things we would never choose to learn but wouldn’t trade for anything. It creates more depth and empathy in our hearts, and more room for the positive emotions.

Take the tears that I have cried

Wash me on the inside

When this well is deep and dry

There will be more room

More room for laughter

More room for faith

Where light can gather

And fear has no place

More room for changing

In ways that will make

More room for love

(Song “More Room”/CD “Hello Sky”)

2) Seek Support

Women need other women! When dealing with disappointment, it’s easy to feel isolated and alone as if we are the only ones who’ve ever felt this way. Whether you are dealing with the disappointment of an elementary child with learning disabilities, or a teenage daughter’s pregnancy, or an adult child who can’t seem to hold down a job, talking with other women who have experienced similar disappointments can ease the burden. Even if the situation with your child doesn’t change, talking to other women who’ve “been there” can provide invaluable emotional support and strength to manage disappointment. You need support from other women.

The colors was painted have faded to gray

The dreams that you’ve hoped for and waited

Have all washed away

With the tide

Stranded on confusion’s island

Staring blankly into the blue

So hard to see that someone upstairs sees you

Well I’ve got hope enough for two…

(Song “Hope Enough For Two”/CD “Pray For Rain”)

3) Learn to Listen

When you are feeling and expressing disappointment, you may not realize that your children may be learning from your reactions how to deal with their own feelings of disappointment. If you can listen to your child’s perspective in a non-judgmental way without taking on responsibility for their choices or situation, disappointments can transform into opportunities for increased intimacy with your child. Understand their unique perspective and see them as a separate person, not as an extension of you.

I’ll listen with my heart to hear between the lines

I want to understand you more than I need to be right

I’ve put aside my pride – forsaken all of my demands

I’ll listen with my heart until you feel I understand

(From the song “Listen With My Heart”/CD “Home”)

4) Refrain from Rescuing

Many parents fight the urge to protect their child from consequences of their choices or circumstances. Although rescuing provides temporary feelings of relief for both you and your child, it robs them of the gift of experiencing painful cause and effect of choices. Albert Einstein said, “The only source of knowledge is experience”. Experiencing consequences is one of the greatest gifts that you can give your children because it contributes to the development of maturity, responsibility, self-awareness, and empathy for others.

Broken toys will turn to broken hearts

And the time will come when I can’t find all the parts

Broken glass to broken dreams

Broken bones to broken wings

And you will need a healing beyond me

You will need a healing beyond me

Tuck you in and read you stories

Knowing you are safe

Watch you sleeping

Watch you breathing

I’ve a quiet ache

You’ll walk places I can’t know

You will fall and I’ll let you go

I’ll let you go…

(Song “Healing”/CD “Pray For Rain”)

5) Modify Meanings

We often unknowingly create or magnify the pain of disappointment by the meaning we give to our situation. For example, if you discover that your teen is drinking, you can make it mean, “I am a failure as a parent. This is awful!” or you can make it mean “Something’s going on with my child that I haven’t been aware of. I want to understand why they are making this choice so I can know how to help.” Which meaning feels better? A strategy to help identify the meaning you are giving to a situation is to write down the facts (i.e. my child is failing in reading), and then write down meaning you are ascribing to the facts (i.e. “I must not have read enough to her as a child.” Or “She is so lazy. She’ll be behind in school for the rest of her life!”). Next, explore at least two other possible meanings that you could give to the same situation. Stick with those meanings that feel better and more hopeful. Taking an emotional step back can help you shift perspective and feel differently even though the situation hasn’t changed.

I must have misplaced my best laid plans

The map I’ve drafted carefully slipped from my hands

It plotted out so perfectly the life I’d have

Has anyone seen my best laid plans?

Seems that life just happens while we’re waiting
And planning out or path

Seems that there’s an architect creating

A life in bigger hands

(Song “Best Laid Plans”/CD “Home”)

6) Live YOUR Life

You’ve made sacrifices and invested in your child for months or years or even decades! Worry and concern can feel consuming when your child goes through difficult times. This vicarious suffering makes it easy to put your own life on hold. Unfortunately, when you stop taking caring of yourself, you can unknowingly create more stress for your child. Now they not only have to deal with their own difficulties, but also with a parent who’s stressed out and falling apart. It’s important to continue to take good care of yourself (eat well, get enough sleep, engage in hobbies, tend to spirituality, exercise, nurture relationships) and continue doing things that bring you joy. Self-care allows you to maintain the physical and emotional resources to enable you to continue loving and supporting your struggling child.

What if loved the skin I’m in?

Focused on beauty from within?

What if my spirit and my body lived in harmony?

What if my grass was always green?

Greener than any field I’ve seen?

What if I celebrate the garden right in front of me?

What if I love the man I’m with?

Not who he’ll be but who he is

What if it loosened up the soil for more love to grow?

What if I let my children be

Who they are not what I need?

What if I watch in wonder as their tender wings unfold?

What if I love the life I’m living?

What if I only wanted what I’ve been given?

(Song “What If”/CD “Home”)

Julie de Azevedo Hanks, LCSW, founder and director of Wasatch Family Therapy, specializes in psychotherapy with women and couples. She is passionate about women’s self-care and emotional health and frequently presents workshops to women’s groups around the country. Visit www.wasatchfamilytherapy.com to learn more about counseling services or email julie@wasatchfamilytherapy.com. For information about Julie’s award-winning songs visit www.juliedeazevedo.com.

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