Helping Children Cope with Disappointment
Last week was supposed to be a visit with Missie and Buddy’s birthdad. On Sunday morning at 8am the kids were ready to see him. Having spent a week (or more?) feeling both excited and anxious, the plans were shared, approved, and prepared for. It had been a year and a half since they’d seen him and especially Missie really looked forward to her time with him. So when the clock hit 9 and he still hadn’t arrived, nor called, she began to worry. We began following the plans so carefully laid out, the plans that were centered around his visit, and for which he was not present. Missie wanted to wait at home for him, begged us, thinking of countless reasons for why he might be late. She remembered obscure details such as the fact that he uses “his computer as a phone,” and “he doesn’t have a car anymore. He lives really far and has to drive on the highway to get here.” All these reasons…
Heading home after our morning activity she felt convinced he would be there, on our front porch. Waiting, saying “I love you and I came to see you!” Even I craned my neck as we rounded the corner. We were all silent when it became clear that he was not there. As we entered our house a small voice, tinged with fear, sadness, and disappointment: “I don’t think he’s coming…” Our family had lunch and rest hour always, allowing extra space for big feelings. Still no word. We did our afternoon activity and went out for ice-cream. Nothing, just crushing disappointment all around us.
It was almost 4pm before the birthdad texted MrH to say he’d gotten our messages and would call the kids in 15 minutes if that was ok. MrH wrote back: “are you here?” As it turned out, Missie and Buddy’s birthdad had failed to double-check his dates when booking tickets, and instead relied on his (faulty) memory. He had tickets for the following weekend. Nothing could have prepared me for the moment where we told Missie what had happened. MrH held her and all I could do was to keep from joining her in bawling out loud. Even thinking back on it I get teary-eyed. So what helped her cope? Well, besides her amazing resiliency, we also tried to help in a few ways:
- We stuck with the routine and made ourselves extra-available.
- Whenever big feelings began bubbling up, one of us sat with her, holding both her and her feelings. Sometimes we helped name them, other times we empathized, other times we just sat and hugged.
- Practically speaking, we ensured that her schedule had a good balance of active and quiet times. We spent time at home the next morning, and then she got together with a good friend in the afternoon. Allowing her to escape for short amounts of time helps her compartmentalize her feelings from her everyday. At the same time, we work hard to help her express, rather than suppress, her feelings.
- We ourselves extended grace to her birthdad. Not to excuse him, but to acknowledge that people make mistakes and we can still care for them, still want for them to come visit. We don’t need to hold this as a grudge. On the other hand, we are learning that it’s important to also acknowledge that this is somewhat of a pattern with him. Missie is receiving information about the degree to which she can count on him, and our role as pre-adoptive parents is neither to enhance nor diminish her perceptions of him.
Lastly, we found ourselves some support during those tough few days where emotions were raw. I felt like I was swimming in a sea of feelings, especially that first day. And being the sensitive type that was incredibly difficult for me. So I connected with a couple of friends, prayed to God for strength, insight, and grace, and attempted to not take my feelings out on MrH. None of us are perfect, and I think we weathered this storm well. Though I still wish it hadn’t been necessary to weather, we’re learning more and more about how to help our children cope with deep disappointment.
You probably noticed that I mostly acknowledged Missie’s feelings about this missed visit. The reason is mostly that she is strongly bonded with her birthdad, whereas Buddy really isn’t. For now, he’s just trying to make sense out of who this guy is and what his relationship to Buddy is.