Caring for the Disappointed Child
by: Jane Snider, LPC.
Most of us have experienced disappointment in our lives from time to time. That’s normal, and it helps us learn patience, develop character, and learn how to self-soothe in a healthy way. It is part of learning to cope, believing in tomorrow, and relying on prayer to get us through.
There is another kind of disappointment, however, that isn’t quite so positive. In fact, its toxicity can cause life- long personality damage. What I’m referring to is chronic, long term disappointment from parents/caregivers who make promise after promise, yet never follow through.
Throughout the years of my work experience I have talked with many children and adults whom I term, “Disappointed Children”. As adults they usually present as angry, depressed, anxious, often addicted to this or that. They come to counseling because their lives and relationships are not working for them, or because they can’t ever seem to find their way to happiness. As teens they often present as “failure to launch”, languishing at home with no plan and no passion for life. Working backwards to find out how their life view has developed frequently uncovers a Disappointed Child.
These are the children who have been repeatedly promised things that never happen. Things like, “Your Dad is coming to get you this weekend”, or” I promise I will quit drinking”. Things like, “I’m not using drugs, I swear”, “Yes, I have the money for your school clothes.” “I’m having a party for your graduation”. “ I’ll be there, I love you, I won’t forget, I’m coming back for you”. Big things.
Those are big things that never happen. There are smaller ones too. Outings that are promised, but never happen. Gifts that are “sent” but strangely never arrive. Texts and letters that never come. Parents who never show up for the important moments in their children’s lives. And every moment in a child’s life is important.
Children who live this way eventually come to believe that no one can be counted on to be there. No one can be trusted. They believe that somehow, they are not worthy of attention. They begin to shut down their expectations, anticipation, and excitement. Their feelings become dulled, or not present at all. They lose motivation and eventually, they quit trying to make a difference in their own lives. This isn’t always visible to the people around them. It is a long and gradual process.
If you are parenting or grand-parenting a child who has experienced this toxic disappointment, or if you are fostering someone who has, it will be very important to provide consistency. This means being careful not to make promises that might fall through, or use the cancellation of a coming much anticipated event as a threat with which to control behavior. You might get the behavior that you wanted at that moment, but you may never be able to regain the child’s trust.
Make life fun with joyful and silly ideas, and surprises. Go someplace unexpected, do something spontaneous every once in awhile. The disappointed child knows a lot about things that never happen. Create an atmosphere where fun things frequently happen. Buy them something they want, just because they want it. Let them experience planning an outing or party or dinner that actually does happen. Help them re-discover the sense of possibility and creativity that has been crushed out of them by disappointment. Embrace their passions and help them discover more passion for life.
If you are reading this and you have grown up as a Disappointed Child, then please, through therapy and lifestyle change, start developing a joyful life for yourself.
“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” Psalm 34:18