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.

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