Vicarious Disappointment


So you decide to have a kid or two, and you have a kid or two, and you raise a kid or two.

And along the way, the normal things happen:  developmental milestones, bumps and bruises, temper tantrums, good grades, friendships found, friendships lost, surprising sneaky behavior, surprising wonderful behavior.  And you realize, over and over, that you are merely along for the ride of parenthood, rather than the operator of the vehicle.

With each new phase, you experience challenges new to you, but tales as old as time for those who went so boldly before you.  You say, “I’m nothing more than a limo driver,” thinking you are the originator of this thought, and you receive instant nodding, knowing looks from your predecessors.  And you are humbled, once again.

But still, when your child experiences disappointment, it is a most unusual feeling, almost an out-of-body experience.  And it appears as though the residual feelings last longer with the parent than with the child.

First,  physical sensations:  prickly tears, churning stomach, jangled nerves, all of which must be controlled so that you can comfort the one who is actually experiencing the disappointment, your child.  Not you, your child.  Buck up, ninny, and do your job.

Then, the mental obsession:  How dare this disappointing thing happen to my child.  Doesn’t everyone know how special my child is/how hard my child tries/how much better my child would be if this disappointment hadn’t happened?  Why doesn’t anyone (everyone) care?

Quickly enough, the pointing finger does a u-turn:  Surely there are things you could have done, should have done, to prevent this disappointment in the first place?  Surely you could have instructed your child better, played a better social game with the people in your child’s world, insisted that your child prepare herself better to prevent the disappointment?

Next, residual issues:  the physical and mental affect you enough to deal inappropriately with the people around you.  You pick fights with your husband, you snap at the other child, you are disappointed with the behavior of your dog.

Still, you reason, disappointment happens, and therefore your next most important task in life is to do and say the next right thing with respect to your disappointed child.  You carefully consider your conversational options, you write uplifting texts for her to read, and you anxiously await the next time you see her to gauge her feelings and give the most correct, most sage, most transformative speech that will be the turning point in your child’s despair.

And she comes home, and she is fine.  In fact, did something disappointing even happen?  No, she has no updates or news, she hadn’t thought much about it, to tell the truth.  And she grabs a snack and breezes up to her room, to find the next drama upon which to focus.

This should be a happy ending, right?  Then why doesn’t it feel like a happy ending?  And how in the hell did this suddenly become about me?

Is there an appropriate filing cabinet for feelings of vicarious disappointment?  Is there a manual written on how to recover from the disappointment you didn’t actually experience?

Today’s Miracle:

After an overdue heart-to-heart discussion with a long-term friend, I am sharing my blog with her for the first time today.


Posted on November 20, 2014, in Parenting, Self-Care and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. I am not in your shoes (yet), Josie – I know you have a teen, so there are going to be challenges with that no doubt. What I do know is that I live my childhood again with my kids – the good and not so good. I worry about bullying because I was bullied most of my life. I worry about their grades, as I did very well in that dept (hence the bullying!). As one of my therapists said, we see our childhood again through them. And that is probably why so many of us get those sort of vicarious experiences and the emotions they bring up.

    My oldest (7 yrs) has a kid in his class who he calls his “best friend”. My son talks about him a lot. But it is very clear it is not reciprocal. I don’t say anything, but I can be quick to disappointment or even resentment, because that used to happen to me all the time as a kid. But it’s not my experience, and my son will probably figure it out and he will be FINE.

    In the end, I can guide or suggest, but it’s not my life. I do the best for both boys, but I can’t try to “repair” my life through theirs (not suggesting that was the point of your post, by the way). Just being aware and supportive is the best I can do. Whether he’s 7 or 17 or 27.

    Thanks for this, Josie. Wonderful stuff.



    • Actually, if the point was for my daughter to repair my life through hers, thus far she is leaps and bounds ahead of me! But, for sure, that is a bad goal, and even this addled brain gets that 🙂

      Oh man, do I hear you on that lack of reciprocity thing. Been there, done that, and I applaud your restraint, it is hard for me to hold back judgments on that sort of thing.

      I really appreciate this comment, Paul, because it has reminded me of the various other disappointments and challenges from the younger years, and you are so right… everyone is just fine, and we will be fine with this one too!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Kids are far more resilient than I think we give them credit for. I go through this cycle of shared (co-dependent?) disappointment every season my son plays baseball and the lows of his performance affect me more and for longer than they do for him. He was bullied last year at school and christ did it make me angry, but it got better for him and he blew it off. I agree – we are along for the ride – and it’s a short one. I try not to compartmentalize it anymore – I just try to feel it deeply for a short time and then let go. If we try to stuff it down and feel it less, it just stays longer.


  3. Moms should write down all their feelings about guilt and put it into a file. Do not open it until your child becomes an adult and moves out.Hopefully, you will laugh when you read them. Your influence on your child deceases every year and no two kids are alike.


  4. That’s great that you are sharing your blog! I do it occasionally and am always relieved by the response. But it is a big deal!

    Trying to let our children love their own lives is hard. The anger we feel for them, the sadness. The pride.

    I have been trying to step back and look at it as theirs. When the succeed it is not my success to bask in. And when they fail I am not a failure. Everything isn’t about me.

    They are their own self. I’m here to try to guide.

    This has been really tough and is still a work in progress. My want to be over protective and codependent is strong. But it doesn’t help anyone!



    • So true, Anne, and I have to say I am a work in progress in stepping back. You are so right about it not helping anyone, but in the moment it is so hard not to micromanage.

      I really appreciate this comment, and the warm words on the sharing of the blog. And I am still loving the wisdom I just gained from reading your most recent post 🙂


  5. I’m not getting this quote exactly right, but “We learn more from pain than from pleasure.” Disappointments are a part of life, and shielding a kid from disappointments, or softening the blow, just makes them less resilient in the long run. Remember, we’re not just raising children, we’re raising children to one day be adults.

    Have you ever been around an adult who has a hard time handling disappointment? I have, and they feel like emotional time bombs. Not a healthy way to be.

    A great thing you can do for your child in terms of handling disappointment is by being a good role model. Kids may listen to what we say, but they learn from what we do.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are entirely correct, SC, but as many times as I say that to myself, I don’t know… I know it in my head, but not my heart… does that make any sense?

      Truly, she has moved on so much faster than me, that’s what so funny about the whole thing!

      I appreciate the comment, and the great advice about modelling good behavior. So true!


  6. Oh this is so freaking TRUE!!!!! And the hell of it is, it doesn’t dissipate as they get older. It gets worse because the disappointments they have as adults are adult sized.

    So that feeling is adult size too.

    Yeah…good luck with that.


    Liked by 1 person

  7. I really related to this – it is something I struggle with. I wonder if I don’t identify too much with my kids’ successes and failures. My eldest had a sporting disappointment recently, and my reaction was, I’m disappointed because it’s so important to him and I know he’s upset by this, and then I thought, but is that all of it, really? Is a part of me disappointed because I’m not able to say, look at how brilliantly my son is doing here? I think just noticing your reaction and their reaction is part of working through it. I loved all the comments, there is so much wisdom in this thread 🙂 It has helped me, for sure 🙂 xx

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I really relate too. I have to watch how I respond when my kids get disappointing news because I feel like I react as emotionally as they don’t want to. Maybe I put it into a context they don’t, or maybe I’m just a freak, ha. Maybe it takes us longer to move on, plus maybe they internalize the disappointment and stuff it down more, as teenagers are prone to do. We don’t have that luxury, but I do feel like each disappointment and rebound helps us learn and grow. They’ll probably be parents one day themselves, so it will be good experience for that if nothing else.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Oh my goodness I am laughing over here. This is so me. I love that our kids are the same ages because I can always relate to the episode. One of my favorite lines came not too long ago, “She’s special but she’s not that special,” says my daughter’s academic adviser. I was floored and then I started to laugh out loud. She was right. I thought my daughter was MORE special and should be treated differently. I’m still laughing at my perspective. Geez, how did I even acquire that mindset. Oh yeah … I’m the mom.

    And then way you said “how did this become about me?’ … oh my heavens, I am choking on my own breath. I feel ridiculously self-obsessed at this moment. I always bring it back to me. This might be my new year resolution “Keep the focus where it belongs.”

    I adore you in every way. Happy Thanksgiving. I’m thankful for you.
    xox Me


    • Lisa, it is pure joy when I receive a comment from you, and I feel honored that you relate. I would have killed that academic adviser, and it shows your advanced progress that you were able to laugh 🙂

      Yeah, that ego thing, it just keeps sneaking back in, doesn’t it? I was really kind of hoping I would get that thing beat within the first 3 years, then move on to an ego-free life, but sadly, that doesn’t seem to be happening!

      A million thanks for stopping by and commenting, you always brighten my day 🙂


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