Helping Our Children Face Life's Disappointments

We had booked our plane tickets back in September. We had rented a car and hotel rooms. We hadn’t seen our relatives in months, and my wife and our three kids couldn’t wait to travel to home for Christmas. We had plans to ski, open Christmas presents together, and just enjoy gathering our family from three different states to be together over the last week of 2022.

But when we arrived at the airport the afternoon of Christmas Day, we didn’t yet know that our chosen airline was in the midst of a massive meltdown that would leave tens of thousands of travelers stranded at airports around the country over the week of Christmas. The next 24 hours were a frustrating mess of spending hours in line, brainstorming alternative travel plans, making phone calls, waiting on hold…all to no avail, as we realized that we had little choice but to cancel our entire vacation. Christmas dinner was pizza from a convenience store! It was an immense disappointment for everyone, and certainly not the Christmas anyone had hoped for.

Disappointment is inevitable for you, and for your family. Maybe like us, your long-awaited family vacation might have been canceled for reasons outside of your control. Or, your daughter might look forward to her birthday for months, only to wake up with a stomach bug leaving her confined to her bed instead of opening presents with her friends. Perhaps your son, who was looking forward to playing quarterback in the state championship, is sidelined with an injury and forced to watch his team compete without him. Life’s disappointments provide important opportunities for parents to teach their children several truths of God’s word and to absorb them into their hearts. As our family stood in line in the airport (and then drove home later the next day!) I pondered several truths of God’s word that guided me, my wife, and children through this disappointing time.

Grieve the Loss

My wife is an expert in acknowledging the reality of pain and grief in a situation, while I tend to want to focus on the positive. Throughout our experience, she reminded me of the importance of sitting with the pain, and acknowledging it. Sometimes, our tendency as parents is to downplay the difficult feelings of our kids, their pain, sadness, or disappointment. We tell them to “cheer up” or, like me, move too quickly to suggest positive solutions. But doing so without lament can deny legitimate feelings. When scripture reminds us to “grieve with those who grieve” (Romans 12:15) and to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2), it means entering into the hurt and sadness of another, and sharing it, rather than denying or minimizing those hard emotions. Instead recognize and name what was lost, and listen in a way that draws out the emotion from your spouse, or your children. In doing so, you will validate their experience.

Live into God’s Timing

As our family scrambled to find alternative travel plans, the words of James 4:13-15 became both humbling and life-giving. James reminds those who say,

“Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that."

I realized how much I like to be in control of my calendar. We plan our lives constantly. We schedule vacations. We plan for our kid’s theatre productions, soccer tournaments, and birthday parties. We anticipate family reunions, mission travels, and school field trips. Yet, how easy it is for us to forget that it is God (and not us) who is in control of every millisecond of our lives. We may certainly plan (scripture contains much wisdom on the value of planning for our future), but we must humbly entrust every detail of our plan into God’s sovereign hands. We may not understand why our plans fall through, but we must have the humility to recognize that we are not in control; God is. However, recognizing this is actually a relief. If God is indeed gracious, as much as he is sovereign, there is no better place for our plans to be than in his care.

Rest in God’s Purposes

If we trust God’s timing, we may also trust his planning. It’s true that God sometimes allows life to unfold in ways very different from what we would have preferred. And it’s also true that this can be discouraging or disappointing, and utterly impossible to understand. But it’s equally true that God can bring purpose to even the smallest detail of our lives. We may not see or understand that purpose on this side of eternity, but the God who used the horror of the cross to secure our salvation can always be trusted to work out his plan.

For us, resting in God’s purposes meant accepting (with tears!) that God’s plan for our vacation was not the same as ours. We looked for alternative ways to enjoy our vacation, and although no one would have pretended that, from our vantage point, our alternate activities were as happy as what we had planned, we chose to steward our time well. There is comfort in the words of Jesus:

"I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world”(John 16:33).

Disappointment is a certainty for us, and for our families. When our plans fall to pieces in front of us, it can be easy to become cynical or bitter, but these are not how God wants us to steward the disappointments that hit our families. Instead, find ways to express your emotions even as you hold onto the truths of God’s word.

About the author — Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra

Rob Toornstra has pastored a church in Salem Oregon for the past ten years. He has been married to Amy for fifteen years, and together, they are enjoying the adventure of raising two girls and one boy. For fun, Rob enjoys cooking, reading, aviation, and geocaching.  He is the author of "Naked and Unashamed: How the Good News of Jesus Transforms Intimacy" (Doulos, 2014).

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