After running to the table where he thought the video would be, Drew, who was 4 at the time and enamored of the attempts to trap a heffalump, crumpled on the rug, sobbing. I didn't know how to respond. Should I try to fix it? Did a meltdown of this magnitude call for an emergency trip to the video store? Or was it time for another talk about how things don't always work out the way we want them to?
Leaning over his quivering body, I told Drew I was sorry I'd had to return the video, because I knew he really wanted to watch it. But we had borrowed it from the library, and our turn with it was over, so we had to take it back. He wouldn't speak. "We can check it out again another time." Still no speaking. "Let's go see if Arthur is on." His head popped up, he took my hand, and we settled in.
Disappointments come fast and furiously for kids. The park is closed. The playdate is canceled. Grandma can't come to the birthday party. As much as we'd like to spare our children, we can't. And even if we could shield them from every letdown, it wouldn't be good for them. "The ability to feel disappointment, bear it, and move on is a critical ingredient of mental health," says Donald Rosenblitt, M.D., clinical director of the Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood, in Cary, North Carolina, and a dad of two. "It's the little disappointments that provide the greatest opportunity to build up this muscle."
Teaching your child to bounce back will help him become more independent, and spare you some tantrums. "The upset often comes from helplessness," Dr. Rosenblitt says. "If we give our kids tools for them to help themselves, they feel better."
To help your child learn to roll with the punches:
Let them be disappointed
The zoo was five hours away, which meant leaving home at 4:30 a.m., so when the Spain family turned back an hour into the trip because of rain, Samantha, 2, cried and chanted, "I want zoo, I want zoo." "But we just had to go home," says her mom, Kristeena Spain of Hazel Green, Alabama. "Sometimes you just go home."
If you resist the urge to rescue your child and instead let her actually feel the letdown, she'll discover she can handle it. So don't rush in to replace a broken toy or drive yourself crazy trying to find a substitute activity. "What's the big picture -- are you trying to teach your child she has to have a good time all the time?" asks Anne Glowinski, M.D., a child psychiatrist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and a mom of three.
"My theory is, if you're never disappointed, you never learn," says Spain. With that in mind, when the family dog destroyed one of Samantha's favorite dolls, Spain decided not to patch over the loss. "Of course we talked about it, but I didn't say 'Let's get you a new one' or 'Let's go get a cookie,'" she says. Instead, she listened as Samantha remembered how much she'd loved the doll. It can be extremely tempting to try to fix the problem -- that's a lot of what you do as a parent. But sometimes a problem is better off left unfixed.
So instead of making the disappointment go away, empathize. Even if the event seems small, resist the urge to say "It's not that bad," especially with younger kids. Your child will recover faster if he feels understood. Make it clear that something not going his way isn't an excuse for a tantrum: If one starts, tell him that once he stops kicking and screaming, you'll talk about what you're going to do next. Then let it run its course.
Contributing editor Jane Meredith Adams is the mom of 8-year-old twins and a contributor to Searching for Mary Poppins: Women Write About the Intense Relationship Between Mothers and Nannies, from Hudson Street Press.
Other ideas to help kids accept sadness:
Acknowledge their disappointment, and then move on, since attention span and memory are limited at this age. It's fine to use distraction. Lift up your child and move her to another room and another activity. Something simple and captivating, like a basin and a couple of plastic measuring cups of water, ought to do the trick.
Ages 2 and 3
Give them words that both accept and help them describe their emotions -- at this stage kids can't always figure out how to say what they're feeling. Say "I know you're sad" or "I know you're angry." As with younger kids, a transitional activity can salve the hurt. Something physical, like chasing him around the house, can often cut through the sadness. If not, a cuddle with a book might help.
Ages 4 and 5
Have a conversation. Because vocabulary has picked up, some kids will be able to talk directly about the disappointment. Get down to eye level to respond: "You're right -- it's sad that Becky's moving away." But then suggest ways your child can start to get over her sorrow -- suggest, for instance, that she could write Becky letters after she moves.
Ages 6 and up
Expect fewer meltdowns, but when one does happen, kids this age have the understanding needed to start to put things in context -- especially if you use humor. Don't deny the sadness, but give your child a new way to look at it: "If an elephant suddenly fell out of the sky and crushed our house, then you could cry and scream. But for a lost kiddie-meal toy?"
Give them a little control
When 4-year-old Sarah Kitchings put on one of her stylish black boots, the zipper broke. "You can't wear them," said her mother, Laura Kitchings of Rainier, Washington.
"I can," replied Sarah. She loved the black boots, they were perfect black boots, she'd been counting on wearing the black boots, and she was going to wear them, never mind that one of them was flapping loose around her ankle. She sat on the couch, determined. "You have other shoes," her mom said calmly, "but you have to choose which pair you want to wear."
The choice was the key. When disappointment strikes, kids feel they have even less control over their lives than usual. In order to move on, Sarah had to feel a bit like she was in charge of what was going to happen next. Selecting the Minnie Mouse sandals from her closet helped.
But if the problem is too big for your child to solve, or the upset is too great, step in. When baseball shirts were handed out, Eric Nelson, 6, was devastated to learn that his team's T-shirts were purple, a color he deemed too girly. "He was crushed," says his mother, Beth Nelson. He wanted to quit the team. But together they came up with a compromise: "We brought his shirt along to the field and he changed into it at the last minute," says Nelson. "When the game was over, that purple shirt came right off."
More ways to hand over some control:Under age 2
Give them a choice -- now. Your toddler has little understanding of "yesterday" or "tomorrow," so promising, say, that you'll go to the library next week won't have much meaning. Instead, let him select a book to read, or whether to play in the sandbox or on the slide.
Ages 2 and 3
Present scenarios. Kids have trouble seeing the effects of their actions, so remind yours that only if she stops railing against the fact that her favorite blue socks are dirty will there be time to get an ice cream. If her friend won't play with her, explain that the friend may be mad because she's not sharing her markers.
Ages 4 and 5
Teach what can and can't be changed. With his limited memory, experience, and comprehension, he thinks he's more powerful than he is. Let him know that sometimes things happen that have nothing to do with him: Cars break down, people get sick, and Ferris wheels malfunction. What he can control is his reaction. If he chooses to sulk, let him know that he's making a choice to give up something that might be fun.
Ages 6 and up
Help him take responsibility. If he's upset that a friend won't talk to him, ask him "What's your part in it?" and "What can you do differently?" Explain that even though we don't mean to, we sometimes disappoint other people, too. When 6-year-old Makenna Schiltz ran next door to play with her best friend, she came home crying because the friend was at soccer practice. "I tell her, 'I'll bet there are times when she comes over here and you're at horseback-riding lessons,'" says her mother, Rene Schiltz of Cypress, Texas. After a few minutes of pouting, it's time to move on, says Schiltz.
Much childhood disappointment is caused by unreasonable expectations, and bringing dreams down a notch can be easier than trying to cope with the angst afterward. You don't want to deflate your kids' hope that they'll win the costume parade or hit a home run, but they have to know that not every child can. When Beth Nelson's sons built a pinewood derby car, they were sure that their car was going to win the award for best design. In a low-key way, she tried to refocus them. "We tried to stress the process and what a good time they had making the car," she says. It worked. They didn't win, but on the drive home, one of her sons said, "Well, it was a lot of fun."
Like adults, kids have a mental picture of what an event will hold. If it's a party with her best friend, she might forget that she'll have to share that pal with the other guests. "Before we get to a birthday party, we talk about it," says Angie Lippard, a mom of two in Ooltewah, Tennessee. She reminds her daughter that the birthday girl has to pay attention to all her guests, not just one or two. "That way, if her friend's busy with others, it may hurt, but at least it won't knock her down by surprise."
Some kids need extra preparation time. Laura Kitchings says 4-year-old Sarah adjusts easily to a shift in plans, while 7-year-old Dylan likes to know exactly what's coming up next. So when a friend's party and a Boy Scout hike fell on the same day, Kitchings gave Dylan advance notice that he'd have to choose between the two. "I said, 'Just think about it. We don't have to decide right now,'" she says. Together, they made a list of each activity's pluses and minuses to help Dylan pick one.
A preemptive move can also be as simple as blocking off the stairs so your toddler's not always frustrated at being told not to climb. Alex Oliver, 18 months, became upset over and over because he wasn't allowed to drink fruit juice like his big sister, which she sipped from a plastic straw built into her cup. The solution: His mom, Candita Oliver of Olympia, Washington, simply had her daughter drink from a grown-up cup, which didn't appeal to Alex.
Other ways to avoid disappointment:
Under age 2
Call ahead. Make sure the toy store or museum is open. Keep small toys and books in the diaper bag or in the car for emergency distractions.
Ages 2 and 3
Intervene. If another mom is in the habit of canceling playdates, either skip playdates with that family or simply bring the child to your house.
Ages 4 and 5
Have a backup plan. When taking a plane trip, for instance, remember that airport travel is unpredictable. Without alarming your child, explain what you'll do if the flight is delayed. "First we'll go to the kids' play area, and then we'll get a snack."
Ages 6 and up
Explain that it's part of life. No sports team wins all the time. Point out famous athletes who win some and lose some, and that someone always wins in board games.
As for my son, Drew, and his Winnie the Pooh tantrum, I seem to have played that one right, because he quickly forgot that he'd been so upset. But he didn't forget about Pooh -- the next day he very sweetly requested a trip to the library. And you can guess which video we borrowed.