Saying “I’m disappointed” can Damage Relationships: Children and Adults

Larissa Dann                                                                                

Respectful communication is the life-blood of all relationships. A subtle choice of words may either enhance or diminish family connection.  In my efforts to improve my relationships, one word I’m trying to avoid is ‘disappointed’.

Disappointed.  We’ve all felt disappointed at some stage in our lives. But what happens when you tell someone you are disappointed?  How does a child experience a sentence that begins “I felt disappointed when . . .”?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, disappointment is ‘the sadness or displeasure caused by the non-fulfilment of one’s hopes or expectations’.

So what does feeling disappointed by someone else’s behaviour mean? Am I actually saying that I’m feeling let down by them, because my expectations of them have not been met?  Does “I feel disappointed” feel the same to a child as “You’ve disappointed me”?  I suspect it does.

When we say, “I am disappointed . . .” to a child, they may feel:

  • that there is an unsaid "with you".  That is, "disappointed with you"
  • that they've failed to meet our expectations
  • that they've let us down by not meeting our hopes (of them)
  • judged, criticised and blamed, even when there was no intention to let you down. Why would your child want to experience your disappointment in them?
  • that they aren't good enough
  • punished

How to avoid saying "disappointed"

When we want to communicate to another person that we are unhappy, a safe and effective method is to use an honest, non-blameful I-Message.  A three part I-Message looks something like this:   when . . . (describe child’s behaviour) I feel . . . (a feeling word) because . . . (describe how you have been affected) “.

Sometimes, however, a blameful message can sneak into our I-Message. I think that ‘disappointed’ is one of those furtive feeling words that hide behind a screen of acceptability. 

Disappointed may be the feeling at the tip of the iceberg (similar to the Feelings Iceberg).  The body of the Disappointment Iceberg might hold other feelings.  These could include sadness, hurt, or worried. The challenge is to identify the primary feeling that is being expressed as ‘disappointed’.

Let’s look at ‘hurt’ being the primary feeling.   In my view, there is a discernable difference to the feel of a statement that begins: “I felt hurt when . . .  “, compared to “I feel disappointed when . . . “.

It takes courage to let another person know you felt hurt. When said with genuine intent, such a statement will come across as truthful, and not blameful or manipulative. It also shows that you trust the other person to care – which will help build the relationship. 

A well-structured I-Message allows room for the other person to explain.  Do people really want to hurt you?  Or is your hurt an unintended consequence of their action?

Of course, it is essential that we listen to any resistance or defensiveness that may result from our I-Message.

Alternatives to saying "I'm disappointed"

Imagine your response to the following contrasting statements. How would you feel about yourself? How would you feel about the other person?  Which statement would keep the relationship intact?*

Your Partner says to you:

  •  “I’m disappointed that you decided not to apply for the promotion” versus 
  •  “I’m concerned about our finances, as we’re having difficulty paying the mortgage, and extra money would be helpful.”

Your best friend says to you:

  •   “I’m disappointed you didn’t answer my text today” versus 
  •  “I was having a bad day, and was hoping to talk with you”

Your boss says to you: 

  • “I am disappointed with your report, as there are no statistics” versus
  • “I am concerned that this report is missing some statistics.  The stats are important to illustrate our conclusion”.

Now, imagine your parent says to you:

(You are an adult child):

  •        “I’m disappointed that you won’t make it to the family lunch again on Sunday” versus
  •        “I feel quite hurt and puzzled.  I enjoy having the whole family together, and miss your company when you’re not there.”

(You are a teenager):

  •        “I’m disappointed with your choice of friends” versus
  •        “I feel concerned when John comes around.  He’s been in trouble with the police, and I’m worried that he might influence you.”


  •      “I’m disappointed you’ve left the plates in the sink” versus
  •         “Seeing the plates in the sink is frustrating, as I’ve had a stressful day at work and would just love to relax now.  I find it difficult to relax when I know there is still work to do in the kitchen”.

(You are a five year old):

  •          “I’m disappointed to see Lego blocks on the floor” versus
  •         “When I see the blocks on the floor, I am concerned I might step on them and hurt myself”

When you read these examples, what was your response?  If you felt blamed or criticised by the use of the word ‘disappointed’, then the relationship between you and the other person is damaged. 

The alternative I-Message (and there are many other I-Message responses besides the ones I’ve suggested) may result in some resistance or defensiveness – but there is no direct blame.  And the I-Message can be the beginning of a conversation, as the other person hears the appeal for help.

Our words are our windows into relationship.  Choosing them wisely can help us keep those relationships healthy and respectful.

Thank you to my family for a fascinating dinner table discussion that led to the writing of this blog!

* Parent Effectiveness Training Instructor Guide - 'You Messages'.

First published: 13 August 2015 (updated 21 June, 2016) ;    Image used under license from Shutterstock

© Larissa Dann. 2015.  All rights reserved

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