[From the book Freeing Your Child From Negative Thinking by Tamar Chansky, Ph.D. Excerpted by arrangement with Da Capo Press (www.dacapopress.com), a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2008.]
For children with a tendency toward the negative, disappointing experiences don't just ruin that one event; they spill over and ruin all surrounding events. The game plan is to help children learn to be more flexible with their expectations so they can be better buffered from any eventuality.
To explain the basic concept of managing disappointment, parents -- in a calm moment -- can introduce the idea of strong expectations and how they can sometimes do more harm than good, by telling a "long-distance story" -- about themselves, an invented character, or, as in the following script, man's best friend:
Dogs think that every outing is to the dog park. In fact, every time you go to get your coat, or walk to the door they may bark excitedly, thinking, "Ooh, walk time, walk time!" Because they are so excited about the dog park, they may get sooo disappointed when you're just going to put the trash out. We might laugh and think, "Hey, Fido, you can't go to the park all the time, and you don't need to go to the park all the time," but in a way, when we leave the house, we may think we need something good to happen all the time, too, and we kind of stick to an expectation and then get disappointed when it doesn't come true. Is the solution for Fido to forget about the dog park and think, "I'll never go to the dog park"? Will that be any better for him? Right, he'll just be guaranteeing that he'll be miserable by telling himself the "bad" message. Can you think of a different solution? What if he thinks, "I'd like the dog park, but I could also chew on this marrow bone and bark at squirrels. Either way I'm covered." Well the good news is that though dogs may not be able to come up with those options so easily, human beings are incredibly well suited to the job. When we are disappointed, it feels as if we are stuck in a room of disappointment forever, but we need to know that the door is always there to step out and see what else is possible. Give yourself time to recover. The speediest plan isn't necessarily the best plan for you, but when you're ready, you can decide on your next move.
Key points to work on with your child:
- How big is the problem? It feels like a disaster. On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is it?
- What is the worst part of it for you? You may be surprised to hear your child's response to this -- "I have to get the new game today; if I bring it to school next week, no one will care; it will be old already" -- and it will help you clear up distortions and brainstorm what else your child can do.
- How long will the disappointment last? A day, a week? How upset do you want to be about this now, given that it is going to feel better soon?
- Is there a part of this you can control, change, or improve?
- Put a time limit on the venting but blame Disappointment Guy, not your child: How long do you want this disappointment to make you feel bad about these things? or, How can we make sure that Disappointment Guy doesn't mess up anything else in your day? If your child isn't naturally winding down but becoming more convinced of the injustice that has been done, it's time to cut it off: OK, it's time to move on now. I think the sooner we get going on Plan B, the sooner you'll start to feel better.
- Help your child find alternative things to say to himself to counter the alarm messages going through his mind.
- I wasn't expecting this. Change is hard for me, but it's OK.
- This is a big change -- it feels uncomfortable.
- I need a minute to regroup. I know this feeling won't last.
- I'm going to take a deep breath and reassess the situation.
- This isn't what I wanted, but I can handle it.
- This feels bad, but that feeling is temporary. I'll feel better soon.