Dealing With Disappointment: Michele Borba's Guide for Raising Kids Who DON’T Fall Apart (Even During a Pandemic) by Michele Borba, Ed.D.
A lot of children today fall apart when they experience disappointing setbacks. Earning a low test score or losing the soccer game fills them with distress and despair. That’s bad news in our uncertain world. But in the pandemic era, our kids are doing worse than usual. They’ve been immersed in disappointment after missing a year’s worth of major milestones like going to prom, participating in sports or the school play or celebrating graduations. Now the losses are adding up and kids everywhere are struggling to cope.
Children of all ages must learn to take disappointments in stride without melting down – whether they are COVID-19 losses or everyday disappointments like striking out during the big game. We can’t – and shouldn’t – protect our kids from losses and disappointments. They will face plenty of adversity throughout life and must learn to adapt and bounce back. The best thing we parents can do is teach them the coping skills they need to face upsets, learn from them and try again.
One of the keys to building resilience is recognizing that you can endure a hardship. Kids can bounce back from a challenge and handle stress – as long as it doesn’t build up to a toxic overload, of course. Always bubble-wrapping and shielding our kids from tough things and disappointments doesn’t do them any favors.
As parents, we tend push our kids to strive for better grades and better accolades. Yet we aren’t helping them develop the coping skills and character strengths that make them Thrivers, a term for mentally tough kids that have a sense of control over their lives and flourish in our chaotic world. The good news is, there is plenty that parents can do to help kids build resiliency.
Here are a few tips for helping your kids learn to cope with disappointment:
1. Take Time to Listen
Remember, your child has missed out on many important milestones over the past year and likely has legitimate reasons to feel disappointed. This is why it’s so important to give them permission to share their concerns with you. Doing so helps your child recognize that you care but it also gives you the chance to hear your child’s point of view. His outlook on missing his 16th birthday party or canceling his senior spring break trip due to COVID might be far different from yours. But often just knowing that you are listening and want to understand is enough for the child to let some of their disappointment dissipate. Plus, treating them empathetically as they struggle will help them develop their own empathy – a superpower Thrivers possess.
2. Hear Your Child Out and Let Him Voice His Sorrow or Regret
Hear your child out and let him voice his sorrow or regret. Let him know that you understand. While you can’t restore the loss or missed graduation or other milestone your child had been looking forward to – sometimes for years – you can let them know you are here as a source of support.
3. Find One Little Thing You Can Do to Help your Child Better Handle Disappointment
We pay so much attention to our kids’ performance, but we forget to look at how we are guiding them as parents. Tune into your interactions with your child. What is one little thing you can do to help your child deal with disappointment, develop a little more grit, and become more hopeful about life?
4. Stop Stressing Winning
Instead stress the trying. Kids are always watching us for our responses. In fact, one reason they get so upset by setbacks is that they don’t want to disappoint us. So, pay attention to the signals you are sending. Kids will pick up on it if you have a “Winning is everything” mindset. Instead of over-focusing on “What do you get?” emphasize the effort your child made along the way. Trying is far more important than winning! And the more effort a child puts into any task, the greater the likelihood that he will improve and ultimately succeed.
5. Teach Them to Look to "Next Time"
Thrivers are gritty and have a growth mindset. You can help develop these characteristics by reminding your child that they can always improve with more effort and encouraging them to be curious about what they can do differently next time. After any loss ask them, “What part were you proud of?” And then, “What part do you want to do better at next time?” Or, “What’s something else that you could do?”
6. Break It Down
When kids are dealing with disappointment, they get easily overwhelmed. They think, “Oh no, the whole project was wrong” or “I ruined the whole game,” when the reality may be that just one part of their performance didn’t work. This is why it’s so important to teach them to identify “the little stumbler” – the one part that still needs work. Instead of treating a mistake as a total loss, break it down and find the little areas where your child needs improvement. Coach them to keep working on the little stumbler, because that effort and practice is what builds perseverance and makes a Thriver.
Don’t let your child get discouraged as you break down their fear into manageable nuggets. When he says, "I can’t do it," correct him by saying, ‘"You can’t do it yet." Think of yourself as a coach showing an athlete a video replay and asking, "What did we do here?" until the athlete can figure out what needs more work. This empowers them to ascend the ladder of success one rung at a time.
7. Help Them Brainstorm Solutions When Their Plans Are Ruined
COVID-related cancelations won’t sting so badly when your child learns they can use brainstorming to solve problems and overcome disappointment. Brainstorming is a great resilience builder that also nourishes your child’s curiosity, another strength Thrivers possess. Thrivers have a sense of agency that makes them feel they are in the driver’s seat when challenges arrive, and this same inner sense of control is also a great stress reducer.
To help them practice brainstorming, involve your child in coming up with ways to celebrate the event in safe, healthy and creative ways. Some good solutions might include:
- Postpone it. Set a specific new date for the event and mark it on the calendar.
- Downscale it. Instead of hosting a graduation party for 300 kids, plan a smaller version for 10 of your child’s closest friends.
- Recreate it. Change the end-of-year sleepover to a socially distanced campout under the stars.
8. Take a Look at How You React to Disappointment, Too
Resilient parents raise resilient kids. So, pay close attention the example you’re setting in how you cope with challenges. If you struggle through disappointments and setbacks, your child is likely watching and learning by copying you. The best way to teach self-control, empathy, curiosity and other essential character strengths is by modeling them yourself. Here’s a quick checklist to help you assess your behaviors that could be influencing your child.
How do you react:
- When your family reunion or wedding is canceled and you don’t get to go?
- When you see a dismal news story?
- When you don’t get the promotion?
9. Don't Allow Blaming or Excuses
If you have allowed your child to avoid taking responsibility for their actions in the past, stop now. Buying into excuses allows your child to continue refusing to take responsibility for their actions, but Thrivers take ownership for the things they say and do.
To stop this pattern, come up with a mantra to repeat until your child adopts it as her own. It could be “We are responsible for our own actions,” or “We step up to the plate” or “We don’t blame others.” A starter mantra for younger children is “Was that helpful or hurtful?” For an older child or teen, try “Was that productive or not?”
Find the silver lining in hardships and challenges. All kids are going to have bad days sometimes. What’s important is that they do not let pessimism mount to the point that it erodes hope. To help them develop optimism, keep asking your kids “What’s the best part about it?” and “What could you do differently next time?” and “It’ll get better – we’ll just keep working on it.”
10. For Dealing With COVID Disappointments, You Might Also Help Your Child Create an Optimistic Comeback Line to Use If Someone Asks Him About the Missing Event
- “Mom and I are thinking of another way to celebrate.”
- “We can’t do it now but later.”
- “I’m going to postpone it until we can all be safe and have fun.”
Parenting is an ongoing journey and every moment along the way prepares your child for the future. Simple, ordinary and everyday lessons create Thrivers who can face adversity and get up to try again. Don’t miss out on those opportunities to help them learn to cope and find greater resilience. In the end, the ordinary little things add up and help your kids become extraordinary.
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