Disappointments – are we losing the ability to cope with them

This month’s blog is a bit of a follow on from my November blog which was about the struggle for significance. As I think about this more, I believe this links with something that affects us all – diminishing skills in soothing our disappointments. I’m interested in how this connects with the ever increasing personal fear – even though statistically it seems we’re safer than ever (in Oz that is). I believe that the increase in fear hooks us up to looking for external ‘expert’ information. This information often undermines our intuitive sense of what feels right and, unfortunately most of us will follow the ‘expert’ rather that our own sense of what’s right.

Nothing like a cup of tea to soothe disappointment
Nothing like a cup of tea to soothe disappointment

Disappointment is generally fed by a sense of powerlessness – whether it’s as trivial as not getting through on the green light when driving, or something going wrong in a major life threatening way, the emotional process is, to some degree the same – we’re unable to influence events to suit us. If, when this happens we are unable to comfort ourselves – we’re in trouble.  We can develop the belief that we’re not competent to navigate life’s disappointments, which could slide to we’re not capable of managing life at all.

It feels like every family that comes in for family therapy is dealing with this dilemma in some form or other. It’s not uncommon for parents to instantly try to fix the unhappiness of their children. No thinking, just jumping to offer solutions. An example could be a primary school child who came home from school distressed. The child had just discovered that in 2016 he/she was not going to be in a class with any of his/her friends. This child has had a difficult time through the 2015 school year which is why the family sought help. During the session the parents talked about how angry they are with the school.  When they complained the principal said that he thought it would be better for their child. The parents were distressed that they were unable to fix their child’s disappointment. This was what they focused on, not what the principal had said.

Playing leggo for children is a great way to introduce creative play as a form of self comforting
Playing leggo for children is a great way to introduce creative play as a form of self comforting

The principal believed their child’s bad year had something to do with the peer group dynamic; so he and the class room teacher decided separating him/her might help. Also the teacher allocated to their child for 2016 was an outstanding teacher who the principal thought would bring out the best in their child. A lot of thought had gone into this decision by the school. When I asked the parents if they agreed: they thought they probably did.

Captured in this story is a core problem. Parents feel under pressure to keep their children happy – but by doing this, what is in their best interests maybe overlooked.

If parents can’t cope with the disappointments of their children, how are children going to learn that they can survive things not going to plan. The more I think about this, the more I think this is becoming a critical parenting issue.

patting the dog - a great source of comfort when disappointed about something
patting the dog – a great source of comfort when disappointed about something

In a country like Australia most trivial disappointments can be ‘fixed’. For example: if a child makes a mistake choosing something to eat, rather than letting them sit with the disappointment of their choice, and for peace, it’s easy to let them choose something else and just bare the cost. This same process could be around anything; a game they want to play – but then don’t, a toy they want – but then don’t. Whatever it is, if they develop a belief that it’s someone elses job to manage their disappointment tantrum, then their resilience is being eroded. Now of coure we all do this at times, especially when peace is a priority, but if it’s the most common response, that’s when it becomes problematic. Our sense of resilience is built on our history of successful problem solving.

This is generally not such a great problem when children are small it’s when they hit their teenage years that it can develop a worrying direction – when you have a 15-year-old who is either angry,depressed or anxious. To see these young people end up with a psychiatric diagnosis and sometimes medicated makes me distressed. When working with these young people what I discover is a lack of confidence to either voice or enact a solution for what is causing their angst.  They are not confident in their ability to soothe and regulate themselves, generally because they’ve had no practise at it. This, I believe is the key, the ability to self comfort through personal rituals – regular self directed actions that feed a sense of wellbeing – is the antidote to disappointments and living with relative ease with the fragility of certainty.

Just enjoying something beautiful can restore our confidence after a disappointment
Just enjoying something beautiful can restore our confidence after a disappointment