4 Ways to Help Your Kids with Holiday Disappointment
It’s been another complicated year, and the holidays may come with their own wintry mix of ups and downs. Try these conversation prompts to help your kids manage disappointment and other big feelings now and year round.
Here’s the most poorly kept secret about the holidays: they can be really disappointing! For us parents, the days leading up to the celebrations can often feel like a tightrope act as we try to balance anticipation and stress. For kids, a typical holiday season is already fraught with potential letdowns: perhaps trying and failing to get a glimpse of Santa, jealousy that a sibling got a gift they really wanted (even though they may not have wanted it until they saw their sibling get it!), or having to divide time with their blended family when they just want everyone to be together.
This year, of course, brings its own unique pressures, and you may be worried about managing your kids’ feelings as you navigate the season yourself: Is the gift your child or partner wanted stuck in transit somewhere, a casualty of supply chain issues? Did you have to cancel, yet again, annual parties or a trip, due to health and safety concerns? Or are you simply worried, in this season of high expectations, that your children or you may end up feeling a little downhearted?
Of course, disappointment isn’t a seasonal issue, as we all well know. Here are some of the ways I help parents navigate their own and their kids’ difficult feelings year round.
Anticipate, savor, express and remember
Turns out, happiness may be built on these actions, according to The Happiness Project author Gretchen Rubin. Don’t hesitate to talk up the part of the holidays that feel like a sure thing, such as family traditions or special treats. Anticipated pleasures are often more satisfying than surprises. Then, on the awaited day, savor the moments and express your delight out loud: note how good it feels to be all together, how delicious the cookies are, how fun it is to laugh with one another. Finally, in the days after the celebrations, remind yourself and your family of particularly happy moments with a simple “Remember when…” or “I loved when we…”. Or look at the photos on your phone. This works for all kinds of events like vacations, birthdays, first day of school. Anticipating, savoring, reflecting and remembering help prolong a sense of well-being. These practices might not exactly address disappointment, but they help stave off some of those letdown feelings and allow happiness to flourish.
Ask, don’t tell
If your kids are a little pouty or openly crushed, curb your urge to jump in to fix it, to tell them to it’s not so bad, to try to make it better. What might really help is letting them know you hear them. Ask your children what they’re thinking, what they wished for, what is making them sad. Simply listen without judgment and without solutions. Then try responding empathetically with something along the lines of, “Oh, that makes so much sense,” or “It is disappointing,” or “I get what you’re saying.” Acknowledging their feelings is both calming and defusing. You might even find that your child is then able to find their own way out of their saddest feelings: “Actually I only wanted that game because Max was talking about his.”
Teach emotional vocabulary
You can do even more to help your kids understand their feelings. When you help them accurately label their big emotions, those feelings can lose some of their sting. Psychiatrist and author Dan Siegel calls this technique “name it to tame it.” He suggests helping your kids decipher their emotions with a prompt like, “I wonder if you’re feeling sad (or jealous, scared, mad…)?” When we can attach a word to a feeling, it helps us gain some perspective and some control, instead of feeling overwhelmed by anger or sadness.
Offer some perspective
Remind your kids of ways they’ve overcome big and little disappointments in the past. Help them remember another time when they felt disheartened or let down. Rather than dwell on what went wrong, talk about what they learned and what went right. And give them a chance to surprise you with their own recollection of what turned out okay or even great! You might prompt them with something like, “Remember when our cousins couldn’t come over and we were so sad, but we played a game with them on Zoom instead?” While your child may remember that game, they might add, “Oh yeah, that was fun! But then it was even more fun when we made ice cream sundaes afterwards.”
As parents, it’s tempting to dismiss or talk our kids out of some of their big feelings, especially when those emotions make us uncomfortable too. When you help coach them to recognize and understand these difficult emotions, you might actually be giving them the best gift of the season.