A child’s disappointment is one of the hardest things to witness as a parent—even more so when the cause of their disappointment is completely out of our control. With the holidays upon us, the loss of many traditional celebrations and rituals will likely add to the difficult emotions teens are experiencing this year.
However, parents’ and caregivers’ reactions to disappointing situations can help set the tone for how teens deal with disappointment. How parents address changes to the family’s usual ways of marking the holiday season—as well as other disappointing changes—helps determine whether teens can deal with their emotions constructively.
Validating Teens’ Feelings of Grief and Loss
Acknowledging and validating teens’ feelings of disappointment is the first and most important part of addressing disappointment. Teens need parents’ undivided attention and listening ear, without judgment, so they can express their feelings of grief and loss. While the loss of a holiday ritual, such as gathering with extended family or taking a vacation trip, isn’t as extreme as losing a loved one, it is still a loss, and should be recognized as such.
Moreover, holiday-related changes aren’t the only losses teens have dealt with this year. Teens may feel grief over not being able to attend school in person, socialize with their friends regularly, or participate in sports, music, or other extracurricular activities. They may be disappointed for missed birthday parties, graduations, proms, or other milestone events that they were not able to share with others or in the way they had hoped to.
Teens’ emotions of sadness, anger, or irritability surrounding the loss of these activities and events should not be dismissed. These are experiences that provide hope and joy, and consequently, the disappointment is genuine. It is understandable to feel out of sorts when our lives are derailed so significantly. Parents and caregivers should acknowledge these “big T and little t” traumas, and encourage teens to allow themselves to feel their emotions.
Consequences of Disappointment and Loss
Every child has a different level of resilience—the ability to bounce back from difficult experiences—and different ways of responding to varying types of disappointment. Reactions can range from finding new ways to have fun and working to help others, to isolating and withdrawing from family and friends, to anxiety, depression, and trauma-related issues.
A study released in October 2020 analyzed the impact of the pandemic on adolescent mental health by comparing the psychological measures pre- and post-pandemic of 248 teenagers. Researchers found that adolescents’ biggest concern was the lack of social interaction created by social distancing and stay-at-home guidelines. The result was increased anxiety and depression, accompanied by a decrease in life satisfaction.
Another effect of the pandemic and its accompanying losses is what’s known as collective trauma—the psychological repercussions of a devastating event that affects an entire group, country, or population. Teens, especially those who were already struggling with mental health concerns prior to 2020, are particularly vulnerable to collective trauma. Therefore, additional support, through residential or outpatient treatment, may be beneficial for some teens—and critical for others.
How to Deal With Disappointment
It is essential to honor the emotions and feelings surrounding disappointment. Furthermore, once teens and families acknowledge and accept those feelings, it becomes easier to move forward and embrace the opportunity to create new rituals. While the holiday season, whether secular or religious, is typically celebrated with family and friends at social gatherings, the inability to gather in person does not prevent us from marking the holidays in new and different ways.
In an article published in the peer-reviewed journal Family Process, Evan Imber-Black, PhD, director of the Ackerman Institute’s Center for Families and Health, examined the ways in which people around the world reinvented holiday rituals this spring, for Ramadan, Easter, Passover, and Nowruz (the Iranian New Year’s festival in March).
—Evan Imber-Black, PhD, “Rituals in the Time of COVID-19: Imagination, Responsiveness, and the Human Spirit”
Allowing teens to participate in the creative process of coming up with new and socially distanced ways to celebrate holidays and traditions can help them deal with disappointment and transform feelings of disappointment into healing. As they research, brainstorm, and participate in making plans to celebrate holidays in new ways, their disappointment may shift to a sense of hope and even excitement. They can learn new skills in dealing with disappointment, thereby enhancing their resilience and sense of empowerment.
What Parents Can Do
In conclusion, the best ways to support teens in dealing with disappointment are through listening, offering understanding and empathy, and observing their behavior and mood over time. Parents need to be vigilant in watching for signs of mental health issues, and ensuring that teens receive any additional support they need in order to navigate this challenging time.
J Youth Adolesc. 2020 Oct 27: 1–14.
Fam Process. 2020 Aug 1: 10.1111/famp.12581.