Handling disappointment is not easy. Okay, so some may call it 'co-dependence', but there have been times when I have found it to be VERY difficult to say 'no' to my kids. I want them to have, do, be whatever their hearts desire. This is usually within my realm of possibility. It is also my inclination, intention, and mission to support their inner counsel and encourage the expression of their authentic selves. It is one of the reasons I am a homeschooling mom--it is part of my commitment to ensure they have more freedom to pursue where their hearts lead.
However, sometimes it isn't their heart that's doing the directing. It is undeniable that not all their impulses are appropriate. Some may be unsafe, some may be selfish, some may be lazy. These are all what I think of as 'experiments'. They are experimenting with different behaviors and inclinations - that's one of the reasons they are here.
At this juncture, it is time for a mom to get creative! How to redirect in a positive, affirming way?
Sometimes it means relocation or redirecting the focus (especially when they are very young); sometimes it means discussing the consequences (and I'm not talking about those imposed by the parent!); and sometimes, there is no alternative - you just have to say 'no', or 'NO!'
Years ago when my eldest was attending a cooperative pre-school and we as parents were regularly benefited with visits by parent educators, I learned about the 'disappointment muscle'. This was and has been HUGE for me in the ensuing years. The idea is that when our kids want something that isn't coming their way, isn't happening the way they want, or has been forbidden by the authority in their lives and they have the obvious attendant resistance, they are being given the opportunity to exercise their 'disappointment muscle'. And the authority in their lives (the parent) is also being given the opportunity to exercise their own 'disappointment muscle'.
This has been a powerful re-framing exercise for me in order to redirect in a positive, affirming way. Instead of berating myself for being the obstacle to my child's happiness, I can congratulate myself for exercising my child's and my 'disappointment muscle', the ability to allow another to experience disappointment and the ability to cope with our own disappointment. In this moment, I can recognize we are being given the opportunity to learn how to handle disappointment and to clarify and strengthen our position and resolve. As mom, I get to make certain I am standing firm on a well-thought-out position, learn how not to cave in to, and empathize with the 'uncomfortableness' of my child's understandable disappointment.
And it also allows me to recognize that what I might label as a 'negative' emotion is actually just a form of resistance that will make them (and me) stronger. Just as I wouldn't label doing curls with a dumbbell to build up my bicep,'negative', so I can know that my child's disappointment is a resistance that will make us stronger, individually and as a parent-child unit. It is actually a way for us to acknowledge for our child that we know they have the capacity to handle what is at first glance a 'negative' experience and triumph. It becomes an opening to empowerment.
If I were to re-frame it a bit more, I could even call it something different from the 'disappointment' muscle. Life has challenges for everyone. Life is sometimes no picnic. But each challenge develops our resilience and strength. So how about, okay this is a long shot, but how about 'satisfaction' muscle? According to Merriam Webster, the antonym of disappointment - its very opposite - is satisfaction. The familiar idiom--'two sides of the same coin'--informs us the experience has the same value, just as the coin has the same value, but we can choose which perspective we want to take.
For on the soul level there is much satisfaction when the soul experiences 'the experiment' and expands from it. And in practical terms, there is much satisfaction when self-esteem grows from my child's and my discovery that disappointment is very much survivable; there may be and there usually is a better way to go.
It is possible to over-exercise the disappointment muscle by saying 'no' without reflection, without checking in to the internal barometer of being aligned with love. It is also possible to under-exercise the disappointment muscle, saying 'yes' when it is not integrous to do so, but is a way of 'chickening out' and avoiding possible conflict or, in fact, disappointment. Each is a lost opportunity for growth for the child and parent. According to the muscle analogy, the overworked muscle suffers from injury, damage and fatigue. The under-worked muscle is, of course, weak, but most importantly leads to imbalance in the body system. Equally, these options do not lend themselves to raising strong, secure, and balanced children. In keeping with our 'conscious parenting' theme, we want to consciously choose what is in the highest and best interests of both parent and child.
I once overheard a conversation between a young teen and his dad. This young man asked his dad for permission to lengthen his stay with friends. When he received a 'no' to his request, the teen started negotiating with a rational voice. When his attempt to be objective and rational was not successful, he adopted another strategy. He shifted and used the manipulative ploy of sounding disappointed, dejected. Watching him, it was obvious how he switched gears. This immediately, and I mean immediately, got a conciliatory response from his father. I remember thinking, whoa, did the dad ever get 'played' by his son! Apparently, the dad felt himself in the uncomfortable position with which we are all familiar of disappointing another, particularly his child, and found it intolerable.
Recently, I had an insight into resistance. I was brushing my daughter's hair which she has allowed to grow pretty long--almost to her waist. Often, in the evenings she asks me to brush the tangles out of her hair before bedtime. As I was brushing, a couple of times she let her head fall back with the stroke of the brush. When she did so, I requested that she hold her head steady. It occurred to me that this was a perfect demonstration of how resistance was a positive happening. It was a perfect metaphor for life. When there is resistance, there is an opportunity to get the tangles out.
In our interactions with our kids, our resistance or their resistance can create the setting where issues, growth areas can be observed in stark relief. When we are wishy-washy, avoid taking a stand, or are just giving in, we don't reach clarity. These areas which are needing our attention just stay tangled until the snarl becomes impossible. Then there is an absolute demand for our attention and energy, exponentially more then if we had handled the issue when it was just a little tangle.
When I do get in touch with my disappointment muscle, I discover where I am taking the easy (temporarily) way out, not staying true to myself, not saying what is ...... basically chickening out.
What are the benefits of having developed our 'disappointment muscle'? For our kids, we give them the skill to avoid being victimized or manipulated by others in their lives. They will have the strength to stay true to their convictions. They will be empowered to maintain healthy boundaries regardless of outside pressure.
For us parents, we will be cultivating the same skills, skills that we may not have been encouraged to develop in our own birth families. We will also be modeling this ability, which is often (usually!) the best way to teach. In the words of James Baldwin, 'Children have never been very good at listening to their parents, but they sure are good at imitating them.'
And we will have the quiet satisfaction of knowing they are discovering for themselves their own power, preparing them for life's challenges ahead. And the sweetness of a stronger bond with our children, letting them know we will face these challenges together.
Coming soon...tips for helping your kids process disappointment, e.g., have a punching bag hanging in the garage. Here's to working out with the 'disappointment muscle'!
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Site updated January 20, 2021