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

                                                                          

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 "in you".  That is, "disappointed in 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

A comment from one young person (aged 15) illustrates the devastation a child can feel when their parent says "I feel disappointed in you". She wrote movingly, "Did he [my father] have to say disappointed? It broke me and I feel not good enough . . . and I am so sad and scared to hear the words disappointed come out of his mouth to me. I think I might break even more."

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

© Larissa Dann. 2015.  All rights reserved

Comments

I am not a parent, in contrast i am the child. And it's funny how this popped up when i googled " what does it mean when your mom tells you that she is disappointed in you?" BUT I WISH I WASN'T A DISAPPOINTMENT!

I hope that you found this post helpful in understanding your mom. She loves you, but maybe she is having trouble dealing with her own feelings and she is using the wrong words.... she might be hurt, or frustrated or tired or worried. I hope things are better for you both now.

I told my father I want to be a fashion designer and he asked me who do you look up to? Who do you want to be like? I said I don't know I don't know eany fashion designers. He told me you are going to do a research report on 3 cation designers you want to be like I said k. Me as a 15 year old girl cant do that at the time becuse of family probles and vering ready for high school i have a lot on my plate right now and I have anxiety and panic attacks and depression and I died inside when my father told me if you don't find the 3 cation designers by the end of the week I will be very disappointed in you . I under stand my father is watching out for my futer but did he have to say disappointed it broke me and I feel not good enough and i have yet to finish this report to him and i am so sad and scared to see him to hear the words disappointed come out of his mouth to me I think I might brake even more and it is not easy to talk to people but to people I don't know it is easy help how do I handle this what do i say to him.

Hello. Thank you for writing - you sound in deep pain and fear, and are not sure what to do next. I appreciate that you took the time to search out this article, and that you had the courage to write. I also understand from your writing, how much your relationship with your father means to you. I am wondering if an I-Message, such as that described in this article, might help? Perhaps something along the lines of 'I felt hurt and scared when I heard you say you would be disappointed in me. At the same time, I appreciate you want the best for my future'.
You might find this article helpful too? It's about supporting children to develop their love and passion as a career: https://www.parentskills.com.au/blog/why-i-support-my-child-pursuing-car....
I wish you all the best, and thank you again for writing.

I found this article very helpful... thank you for posting on such a difficult topic.
A little history here before I get to my question, my son (6 years older) and i live with my parents due to my husband getting quite ill several years ago and due to his inability to work steadily, they kindly allowed us to live in their home and have for the most part, been amazing given a difficult situation. My mother and I have a history of a contentious relationship that has been further compromised and complicated due to the close proximity in which we all reside. My husband was asked to leave the house a few months ago because the pressure of living together like this combined with his illness, has been too much on our marriage and we started fighting a lot. My son is incredibly intelligent, funny, sweet and defiant. He has a rebellious streak that is understandable given a difficult situation that we have put him in and as a result has been having accidents repeatedly, several times a day.
Here comes my issue... 2 days ago, I had to go to a dr appt and my parents watched my son (this is typical, they are very helpful when it comes to me needing help with him if I have a commitment) My son had a poop accident in my absence and when I returned home, he had a terrible rash because my father wasn’t thorough in cleaning him up afterwards. It happens, I was able to clean my son up and get soothing cream on him and finished cleaning up the mess that was caused. I always tell my son that I’m not upset with him that he has an accident, sometimes I get upset that he doesn’t go when I remind him but I’m never mad that he has an accident. My mother and father do not agree with this way of handling it and want me to be much firmer and stricter like they are. I am not them and I will not accept them being strict with him, I feel that it is not their place. That evening, my son wanted to play a board game with his grandparents and went into their room and asked them to play and I heard from the other room, my mother say no and that she didn’t want to play because she was disappointed in him for having the accident. I went crazy and yelled at her for saying such hurtful words to my son. Even after that, my father asked my son to come into the room and then went into a whole thing about why he was upset about the accident... I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and yelled again, this time at him for continuing this.
After a few minutes to calm down I said to my son, I’m sorry mommy yelled and I was wrong to do that and I asked him to come with me while I apologized to my parents for yelling, that it is never okay to yell at someone. At that point they went crazy on me and I took my son out of the room. The next morning (Thanksgiving), my mother wouldn’t even look at me or talk to me. My son went into their room to say good morning and Happy Thanksgiving and only my father replied, I went nuts, how could my
Mother, my sons grandmother not say happy thanksgiving back to her grandson? It’s abusive and I won’t stand for it. My son and I left my parents house yesterday after I spent 4 days preparing a beautiful thanksgiving, one that we did not get to enjoy. The word ‘disappointment’ is NOT okay and I couldn’t allow my son to be exposed to it. You don’t shame a child for having accidents especially after he has gone through everything that he has over the last few years. Am I wrong?

Hello Karen,
Thank you for contacting us, and sharing your moving and sad situation. It sounds as though you and your family have suffered some through some huge difficulties lately, and that what was said to your son was very hurtful to hear. I imagine you felt very protective of him - that he has no intentions of doing anything wrong, or causing anyone harm. At the same time, you tried to retain your relationship with your parents by apologising for yelling, and I'm guessing it was hurtful to have your overtures ignored.
One of the most influential, life-changing expressions I've come across is this one, by Thomas Gordon (who wrote Parent Effectiveness Training). He said that "children do not misbehave, they simply behave to meet a need". When I'm annoyed by what my children are doing, I try to stop, and then think - what is behind their behaviour? This helps me respond, rather than react. I think this expression also helps me with adults - what is behind their behaviour? And even me, when I'm feeling stressed. Why am I stressed? In your situation, it seems as though everyone has many reasons for being upset, and this may have impacted on what was said and how it was said - including the word 'disappointed'?
When I hear your story, I think about the relationship between all of you, and I am hoping you can come to a space of repairing the relationship. Thoughts that might be helpful include: taking each other seriously (including taking your son seriously); and mutual respect. The best way I can think of expressing respect is through communication, and I'm wondering if you and your family might find this link helpful: https://www.parentskills.com.au/blog/pet-page-summary-skills-and-princip....
Take care

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