A few weeks ago my friend Laurie, who has 4 kids under 6 years old, messaged me with question about using the word disappointed in response to a kids action. “Is it okay to tell your child that you’re disappointed in them?” It’s a question that I’ve considered quite a bit since she asked. On one hand I want my kids to know that what they do and say in life will have an impact on others, myself included, but on the other hand I don’t want them to have to interpret my choice of words to determine how displeased I am with them. Disappointed is a word that I hear quite a bit and even comes from my mouth at times. Since my friend asked me this question, I’ve struggled to understand what the word really means.
Does the feeling of disappointment mean that you’re sad or angry? Ashamed or frustrated? Hurt or resentful? Or perhaps it means annoyed, irritated, or some other somewhat vague expression? These are just some of the words that come to mind when I consider what disappointed might mean. It might be different for you, but I think the response of a parent is the same regardless of the meaning of the word.
As parents, it’s our responsibility to help our kids name and express things about themselves that might be otherwise difficult to access. For example. When one of my kids gets angry at their sister or brother, they often express that anger in very passive aggressive ways. They’ll growl, slyly bump into the other as they walk past, take the object of contention (this morning it was a blue plate), or roll their eyes. All these actions do nothing in terms of naming the emotion that they feel. The other person probably has a good idea that things aren’t well, but it’s guesswork.
Those few examples of passive-aggressive behavior is why I think it’s important for parents to express their own sense of emotional responses towards their kids in a way that is as specific as possible. Telling a child (and by child, I mean someone under 12) that you’re disappointed in their behavior might be truthful to what you’re experiencing, but I don’t think it’s completely honest to what you’re feeling. Try to name the emotion in terms of where the disappointment is coming from — try to identify the core emotion of Hurt, Sad, Anger, Shame, Fear, or Lonely. More often than not, your disappointment comes from wanting/desiring something more for your child and them choosing not to pursue that same desire. Most often disappointment is veiled anger, sadness, and hurt.
One caveat to this is that as kids mature and become more capable to understanding more complexities of life, the use of words like disappointment, annoyed, frustrated, or irritated might be appropriate fodder for conversations. But even then, I’d encourage the exploration and expression of core emotions to support and explain why those are being felt.