How to disappoint your child and improve their mental health

What disappoints you can make you stronger

You could write a PhD on what this Jimmy Kimmel prank says about our society.

He asked parents to film their children while they were told all their Halloween candy had been eaten. Some of the reactions are hilarious, some are heartbreaking and some are shocking. Depending on their mood at the moment of impact I could be confronted by almost any of those reactions from my children.

It’s all about the framing and the expectation in the child’s mind. Some of the children in the clip complained that they had worked so hard to earn that candy and it was theirs. How would you like it if someone cracked open your bank account and went on a spending spree and now there was NONE LEFT? You’d probably have a screaming tantrum, too, because you had worked so hard to earn your money.

If, instead, the children felt that they were playing a crazy made-up game where people gave them candy as a joke, because no child on earth needs an entire bucket of toxic junk so they never actually expected to eat it, this revelation probably wouldn’t have such an impact.

If the child is feeling ill from overdosing on sweets they’ll probably be a bit relieved it’s all gone. If they were told ‘You can have it all tomorrow if you go straight to sleep now’ and then woke up to find it gone they’re more likely to flip out.

Cause and effect. It’s so important to see how this works in child raising… in life. I’m going to do a whole blog on it, and on intention, and on healthy stress… so much on the to-do list, but let’s stick to this prank today because it’s just a buzzing little microcosm of humanity right there.

Like all practical jokes, the Kimmel prank is kinda nasty, but there are about 1000 great things you could teach through it. Not when the child was distressed, because they’ve skipped into survival mode and won’t learn anything useful then, but before you start and once they’ve calmed down.

Disappointment is part of life, and the way we deal with disappointment is integral to our happiness and resilience. No parent wants their child to lose an eye, have to deal with the death of a loved one or experience bullying just so that they can practice dealing with disappointment but cotton-wool-ling our children (or neglecting them) has been proven to scar them for life, too.

We need to be there with our children, not living their life for them.

I don’t think we need to resort to practical jokes to teach our children about disappointment – every parent has to let their child down sometimes. Sometimes you just can’t be where, how or who your child wants, sometimes your best plans go wrong. Life happens.

If you are about to provide some distressing news, focus your child before hand.

For example: I’m about to tell you something important and I want you to carefully watch how your breathing changes as your feelings wash over you.

I’ve done mood maps with my kids through moments I knew they would be disappointed about something. Every 30 seconds (or less if it is really distressing) they give me a score from one to ten on how they are feeling in that moment and I graph it for them as we go so they can see it visually. It takes the sting out of what they’re hearing because when the brain’s executive functions are still firing it suppresses the fight-or-flight response. So they can still process the information without being overwhelmed by stress.

Helping your children navigate stress and disappointment with their pre-frontal cortex switched on is an incredibly powerful gift.

A habit of approaching stress with the executive functioning still intact develops a set of adaptive brain circuitry. Maladaptive brain circuitry leads to overreactions from the amygdala and this can manifest as anxiety disorders, including PSTD.

This is why the old ‘count to ten’ trick really does work, it forces you to keep your executive functions on for long enough for the wave of emotion to begin to subside. Simple exercises that help our kids learn about their minds and emotions can be life changing in the long run, and even more so when we role model the process ourselves.

And it can be so much fun! My kids love their mood maps, they save them with great pride and often ask me to graph their moods with them.

If we can help our kids learn the habit of surfing high-stress moments like disappointment, fear (and extreme joy, lust and excitement) – keeping their executive functions switched on while letting the wave of emotion crash over them and then subside before they react – it will help them keep a cool head and make wise decisions at critical moments all through life.


Tanya Burke is the creator of the Wise Child Happy Child series of practical tools for teaching Emotional Intelligence and co-author of A Doctor’s Dream.

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