When They Sweat the ‘Small’ Stuff – Teaching Kids How to Deal With Disappointment

When They Sweat the 'Small' Stuff - Teaching Kids How to Deal With Disappointment

Life’s too short to sweat the small stuff isn’t it? It’s what adults often say to each other. But a child’s attitude to the ‘small stuff’ is often a different matter. This is an observation that a dad made on a course I ran a while ago: Children do ‘sweat the small stuff.’

One parent I worked with recently, just could not understand why her four-year-old son made such a huge fuss because his biscuit was broken. She offered him another biscuit, but he would have none of it. What could she do, she couldn’t exactly stick the broken biscuit back together could she?

This little story made me smile, it reminded me of the time when my son, then around the same age was inconsolable one day because his Batman pants were in the wash. You would have thought his little world had just ended.

There’s no doubt, children can get very emotional very quickly about seemingly unimportant things. It might not seem like a good idea to pander to this, and to bend over backwards to make everything right for them all the time, but it is important to listen. Patience and empathy on your part will help your child to feel that their emotions are valid, which they are, they really do feel upset/disappointed or whatever it is.

Most parents are not surprised when their two-year-old gets upset about small things, it is accepted that this behaviour is not at all unusual for a child of this age. But it is not uncommon for older children to get very emotional when something is not right. Being able to regulate our emotions, delay gratification, and respond appropriately to life’s ups and downs, are skills that take time to develop, and some children will need more support than others. But there is plenty you can do to encourage these skills in your child.

Teaching Kids How to Deal With Disappointment.

Here are a couple of simple, easy to remember ideas.

  1. Acknowledge emotions

    Try to follow these steps next time you have an emotional child on your hands:

    Name the problem: ‘Your sister has trodden on your Lego model again.’

    Acknowledge the feeling: ‘That must be upsetting.’

    Let your child talk or ‘rant’ if that is what they need to do.

    Keep on listening for as long as it takes, don’t feel you have to say much or ‘fix’ the problem.

    Validating your child’s feelings in this way will help your child to feel that you really care and understand what they are going through, and can help to prevent the emotional behaviour from escalating.

  2. Encourage problem-solving

    Ask your child if they can think of a solution, ‘What do you think you could do to stop this from happening?’

    Brainstorm some different solutions. Support your child to do this.

    Agree on the best solution: ‘So it’s agreed that you will play with your Lego at the other end of the sitting room, where no one is going to be walking past.’

    Try out the solution. Remind your child to put the plan into action.

    Review the plan at a later time. Talk to your child about whether the solution to the problem has worked, and if so why? If it has not worked, why is that, what could be done differently?

    Encouraging your child to come up with their own solution to a problem (with your support) is a more useful approach than just fixing the problem for them. When they walk out the door as a young adult, you want to know that they can deal with the problems that life throws at them.

  3. Be a Role Model

    Children learn a lot by watching others and it is a good idea to let them see you solving problems in this way: ‘Kid’s, the film is all booked up on the day we want to see it, shall we go another day, see a different film or do something else instead?

Be aware that children develop different skills at different rates. You may have a bright child who appears to be ahead when it comes to reading and learning, but that does not necessarily mean that they will be up to the same speed in their emotional development.

If there is not an answer to the problem, the biscuit really is broken, or the Batman pants really are in the wash, then your child will need to learn that sometimes there will be disappointment.

Just stay calm and be there for them while they ‘sweat the small stuff.’


About the Author: Jane Rogers

Jane Rogers is founder of The Cambridge Parent Coach. She is experienced in running a number of highly regarded parenting courses, and writes and runs her own workshops for parents. Jane is passionate about Positive Parenting and her aim is to share the ethos and ideas of this style of parenting in a way that is simple to understand, and easy to put into practice. Jane’s two parent workbooks: ‘How to Encourage Good Behaviour so You Can Enjoy You Children’ and ‘How to Use Positive Discipline to Improve Your Child’s Behaviour’ are available on Amazon

3 Comments

Ari Yares

Great article! We’ve found that teaching some self-calming strategies in advance can also help. Practicing strategies like counting to 3 or taking calming breaths can help children de-escalate themselves.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Ari thank you for sharing this! Yes – an upset brain is a busy brain and it can’t always remember what it needs to, unless the strategies have been well-practiced first. You’re so right about the helpfulness of teaching the strategies in advance.

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Tereza

Great article, thank you so much. My daughter does this often, mostly in the afternoon when she is exausted from the long day in kindergarden (where she does not sleep, beause she “doesnt want to miss something”- her words) and every little thing can make her “loose it”.

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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