Talking to your teen about disappointment

mother and son sitting on bed talking with serious expressions

Written by Dr David Bakker, Clinical Psychologist

There will be times when your teen feels let down or disappointed. It might be when they don’t get the marks they were expecting at school, when they don’t make a sports team, or when they’re unable to see a loved one. Regardless of the cause, here are some tips for helping teens cope with and learn from disappointment.

Why do we feel disappointment?

We can feel disappointed, or even distressed, when actual events don’t line up with what we expected. We may be disappointed in other people, in a situation, or in ourselves. Disappointment is complex because it’s made up of frustration, anger, sadness and sometimes disgust.

Just like other emotions, disappointment is normal, inevitable and important to experience. It helps to build resilience, and overcoming this feeling teaches you to process and work through your emotions.

Signs of disappointment to look for in your teen include:

  • they’ve indicated they feel let down

  • they’ve become withdrawn or pessimistic

  • they’re upset that things aren’t perfect

  • they’re using more drugs or alcohol than usual.

We all feel disappointment at some time or another, but it can become a problem if it’s not processed in a healthy way. How you respond to your child’s disappointments will influence how they learn to deal with obstacles. Here are some ways to help your teen process disappointment:

  • Encourage them to acknowledge their emotions.

  • Reassure them that they can talk to you about it.

  • Teach them how to put events in a larger context, so that they can see things in perspective.

Help them to have realistic expectations of themselves

If your teen’s expectations of themselves are too high or unrealistic, they will be unlikely to meet them. Talking to your teen about where their expectations come from can help them develop a healthier relationship with the standards they set for themselves. Maybe they’re getting good grades but they still feel disappointed in themselves.

Help them appreciate what they are achieving, as opposed to what they aren’t. Speaking about their strengths and having a positive approach will show them that no matter what, they should be proud of themselves.

Help them to process disappointment in others

Sometimes teens feel disappointed in someone, such as a parent they were expecting to see, or a friend who didn’t finish a group assignment. While it can be helpful to empathise with them, it’s important not to encourage negative emotions. Try to avoid:

  • making excuses or promises to soften the blow

  • badmouthing or criticising the person who let them down, which can increase their negative feelings towards the person

  • explaining in detail why the situation happened (e.g. that their parent missed their sports game because they couldn’t get time off work).

Focus on your teen and their feelings, rather than the other person. For example, instead of saying ‘this person decided not to show up and cares more about themselves than you,’ try ‘I’m sure that must be disappointing for you to hear that.’

How to start the conversation with your teen

A conversation with your teen can be a helpful way for them to process their feelings. Try and initiate an open conversation when there are no distractions, such as during a car trip when you’re alone together. You could also slip a conversation starter into a positive activity you’re doing together, like while kicking a footy around.

Try saying:

  • ‘I’ve noticed you seem a little down lately. Would you like to talk about it?’

  • ‘Yeah, that sounds hard.’

  • ‘I can understand why you’d feel disappointed. It makes sense.’

Avoid saying things like:

  • ‘You shouldn’t feel so disappointed.’

  • ‘It’s not that bad.’

  • ‘Okay, well let’s do something to cheer you up.’

  • ‘Next time, you’ll just have to try harder.’

Remember to:

  • be open to talking with your teen about their feelings

  • let your teen open up at their own pace

  • listen to them, without adding your own judgement

  • avoid giving your teen ‘treats’ to make up for what has happened.

If they don’t want to talk to you, don’t take it personally. Let them know that you’re there for them if they want to talk. They might also feel more comfortable talking to someone else about it e.g. a counsellor, teacher or sports coach.

Get some more info on communicating with your teen here.

Encourage positive activities

If you find your teen is dwelling on their disappointment (maybe they’re watching a lot of TV alone, or zoning out in other unhealthy ways), create opportunities for them to deal with their feelings. Research shows that an effective way to do this is to involve them in activities they enjoy.

You could encourage:

  • joining social activities that help your teen feel connected to friends and family

  • taking part in sports, music, crafts or games that help your teen feel confident and in control

  • keeping up regular commitments and routines (such as an agreement to mow the neighbour’s lawn every fortnight, or making pancakes for the family every Sunday).

Learning how to process disappointment is a life skill. While talking with your teen about these things is important, it’s also useful to show them how you work through your emotions. That process will include avoiding blaming other people, including yourself, for your teen’s feelings.

There will be times throughout your teen’s life when their expectations won’t be met and they’ll feel negatively about themselves and other people. With the right support, this is an opportunity for growth – help them find ways to manage their feelings and to build their resilience.

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