When things, people or events are not as your child anticipates or when they do not continue as he expects, and his expectation had been of some thing positive, perhaps even exciting, this emotional reaction is “disappointment.” Alternatively, if his anticipation of something was negative, characterized by apprehension, the emotional reaction is “relief.” As his parent, you help him deal with these emotions. You are supportive when the hurt feelings or disappointments are intense and are happy and excited when his relief and excitement are real. You are there to share the excitement and happiness when things work out well, and to help your child deal with disappointment when things do not work out well.
Loss is a more intense example of disappointment and relief. Understanding loss is, however, a little more difficult than understanding disappointment or relief. The idea is best seen in terms of relationships.
Your children have relationships with family, friends, teachers, neighbors, and (very importantly) with pets. If one of these relationships is interrupted as a result of death, someone moving away, your child having to move, or someone just simply breaking off the relationship, your child experiences loss. Loss in this sense is much more than simply losing a toy. The relationship is part of your child and is part of who your child is. When the relationship is gone, part of your child is gone.
The loss experienced by an adolescent when a girl friend breaks off a relationship is not inconsequential. It is very real. At a less intense level, children experience a similar sense of loss over a lot of things. Your infant may experience loss over having a favorite toy taken away, over no longer being allowed to sleep with a favorite doll or stuffed animal, and often when no longer being allowed to drink from bottle or breast on demand. This is partly why weaning and other times when taking something important away must be handled gently.
Sometimes toddlers experience loss when toilet training is begun – a loss of freedom. Children experience loss when toys get broken, when they can no longer have their favorite blanket, or when left with the baby-sitter. Your preschooler and grade schooler experience a sense of loss when friends get upset with them, when they feel parents or teachers are unhappy with them. A few children experience intense loss when first having to go to school. They fear they have lost their home, the special relationship with mother or father, and to some extent, their childhood. Your adolescent experiences loss with a decrease of status, social involvement, or acceptance by others. Here you can see the loss does not necessarily have to be actual to be experienced. you help them look at the difference between real and apparent loss as well as help them deal with the experience of loss.
As a parent, your job is to help your child deal with both the experience of and expression of disappointment and loss. Before you can do this, though, recognize the feelings involved, tune into what has happened and to how your child is feeling. This empathy is a necessary prerequisite to helping your child deal with disappointment and loss.
Sometimes your children may surprise you by not being as upset as, or by being more upset than you anticipate or think they ought to be. Before you react to your surprise, though, take a little more time to see if you have correctly understood and interpreted their feelings. You might say, “You don’t seem very upset about that.” They can then let you know if you understand where they are emotionally. If disappointment or loss is extreme, children may repress, deny, or become emotionally confused, thus not experiencing the full thrust of their emotions. At other times, they may not be very upset over things which upset you. Keep both of these possibilities in mind.
The fact of your understanding his emotions is supportive to your child. You can let your child know you know how he feels, can be reassuring, can hold or cuddle him, let him know it is alright to be upset or cry, and generally help him experience his emotions within the safety and security of his relationship with you. Next, you help him deal with the expression of his disappointment and loss. Whether the disappointment or loss is minor or severe, however, there are limits which must be imposed. It is up to you to impose these limits in a sensitive but firm way.
When a favorite pet dies, it is reasonable for your child to be upset and to experience loss. It is not acceptable for him to be irritable and hard to get along with for more than a few days, not appropriate for him to destroy the pet’s cage or equipment, and not reasonable or healthy for him to go through mourning as if a friend or member of the family had died. At some point, based on your sensitivity and judgment, you say, “I am really sorry your pet died and understand you are upset about it. But it is time to accept it and move on.” This same parenting response may be necessary over the death of a friend or family member. Although a period of mourning and disorientation is natural and necessary, there comes a point when things must get back to normal. Letting the emotional preoccupation and negativism continue past this reasonable point can have a very negative and destructive effect on your child.
In some situations, children must learn to cover up their negative emotional reactions. A seven-year-old who receives handkerchiefs for his birthday instead of a toy must learn to say, “Thank you, I can always use some more handkerchiefs.” Your adolescent who blows lines in a class play must learn to say, “I blew it; better luck next time.” Yes, children do need to learn about softening, even misrepresenting the expression of their emotions in consideration of the feelings of others. At times, you may have to help them do this. Your child who does not learn to selectively experience disappointment and loss is upset much too much of the time. Life is full of minor disappointments and losses. Your child (along with you) just has to learn to take a lot of them in stride.