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When Life Hurts Your Child

Helping kids deal with disappointment

I still remember my First Big Disappointment. While I'm sure there had been others—smaller things—before this disappointment, nothing stands out quite like not making the school play when I was in seventh grade.

I suppose it was because it was the first thing I'd wanted—rather badly—that I'd worked hard at, practiced for, tried out for, but been cut from. It was the first time I'd been told, essentially, "You are not good enough."

Or at least that's how I read that typed-white sheet, with lists of names that were not mine—hanging there on the bulletin board for all my junior high to see.

I remember the moments that followed so clearly: me, faking a headache, heading to the school office, asking to call my mom. I remember getting home, telling my mom the news, climbing on to her lap and just crying. Crying and crying. She rocked me—probably for the first time in years (I was 12!)—and just let me cry. She probably told me it'd be okay or offered some soothing words. But all I remember is her holding me while I cried.

Then, when my crying turned into sporadic sniffles, when I was ready to talk a bit, she told me it was okay that it hurt right now. But maybe someday—maybe—it'd all make sense. But even if it didn't, she told me I'd have to make a decision: to either stay bitter and angry at the friends who did make the play or to cheer them on anyway—even if it hurt a bit.

Then she prayed with me.

I can't think of anything better my mom could've said or done for me in those moments.

Nearly 30 years later, for the life of me, I cannot remember why I didn't apply her wisdom and comfort to the many other big disappointments of my life (I suppose I just got too cool for my mom's lap and it was all downhill from there). That said, as I've raised my own kids, that day, that memory, has served as a model for how I teach my kids to deal with disappointment. The things my mom offered me that day have helped my kids weather their own storms of their young lives and helped them see the choices we all have in the midst of disappointment. These four things can help you too:

1. Let Them Cry. I must admit, this one is the hardest for me. And probably for a lot of us. We sort of want to put a time limit on the tears, don't we? In fairness, we want to see our kids stop crying because we think it means that they are "all better" when they stop. While this might be true with scraped knees, with something like disappointment, it's not so. As difficult as it can be to have a crying or whining or moping child around the house, giving your kids permission to sink down into their grief is a huge gift.

For some kids (and adults!) the gift is made even sweeter when it comes with a willingness to sit with them, hug them, or simply pass a tissue. For others, the gift is best served with some solitude and space to grieve. Maybe permission to skip family dinner for some time to be alone.

No matter how your child cries or best grieves disappointment—as long as it's not destructive or harmful, of course—let them do it. Guilt- and shame-free.

2. Let Them Know It Might Not Make Sense. The Christian knee-jerk to many disappointments in life is to offer up the "this is God's plan" card. And while something very well may be God's plan, those words are rarely comforting to someone who's hurting acutely. Instead of trying to point out all the "good parts" of a disappointment, tell your child he or she may not understand what's going on. That it doesn't make sense to you either. That you wish it were different.

Of course, telling them that one day they may understand can help. But our tendency to push people out of their pain is often detrimental. Chances are, one day your child will understand—even appreciate—hard but disappointing decisions. (Goodness knows today it's crystal clear to me why I didn't make that play!) But often the best thing we can do is simply learn how to deal with our disappointment, learn from it what we can, and carry on.

3. Let Them Know They Have a Choice. Left to my own devices, I'll often choose bitterness and resentment. It just feels good, does it not? At least in the short term. Many kids are no different. When faced with hurt or disappointment, it's human nature to want to retaliate against those who hurt us or those who are enjoying what we wanted but cannot have.

When my mom reminded me that I had a choice in how I was going to respond to my disappointment, she didn't threaten to punish me if I made the "wrong" choice. She just let me know what the consequences of each would be. That I could—essentially—either be a good friend or lose some good friends.

She taught me that the way I acted out of grief and disappointment could have lasting effects. And that my response could either help me (even when it hurt) or hurt me (even when it felt good—at least in that short term).

4. Let Them Hear You Pray. When my mom prayed for me that day, she asked simply that God would be with me. And that I would feel his presence. She didn't ask for a reversal of the decision or that I would suddenly find something "better" than the school play. She simply asked that God be near. And he was.

Our kids need to learn that God is with us in everything. In the pain. In the trenches. In the disappointments. In our grief. And—of course—in our joys and successes too.

Learning that God was with me in those moments eventually helped me learn to see him, feel him, sense him in those times. And to begin to look and see what he would do with my disappointments.

Caryn Rivadeneira is a freelance writer and the author of Grumble Hallelujah: Learning to Love Your Life Even When It Lets You Down (Tyndale).

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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