10 Ways to Help Your Kid Get Past Discouraging Setbacks

We want our kids to have a sense of purpose and a belief in a positive future. Nothing hurts more than to stand by and watch our kids fall short of something they really want – whether they are auditioning, trying out for a team, applying for a job or college admission, working toward grades or leadership roles, or wanting a date for the prom. But somewhere, sooner or later, kids will face loss, disappointment, a tough challenge. You can’t change the outcome. Sometimes all you can do is help them think about the experience in a way that develops resilience and keeps them going for their dream.

Some kids are naturally more resilient than others, but resilience can be strengthened. Here are 10 ways to help your child gain perspective on what they are labeling a “negative experience”. Remember to always ask permission before giving suggestions, advice or opinions.

  • “Can I make an observation?”
  • “I’m wondering about….”
  • “Can I suggest another way for you to think about the experience…”
  1. Help them learn to ask for help. Maybe this is an opportunity for them to learn something every successful person knows – sometimes you need to ask for help from someone who is farther along the path. There is humility in knowing what you don’t know, and it doesn’t take away from the ultimate accomplishment of a goal if someone has helped you along the way. Kids need to learn the value of mentors, how to reach out for expertise they are missing when they need to build their skill set, and simply get help on the pieces that are not in their lane. And they need to learn the value of a network and develop the ability to reach out for support.
  1. Frame the narrative as the hero or heroines journey. There is power in this perspective. Successful people have failed a lot. They have learned how to “fail faster”. They accept setbacks as part of the journey so they recover and get onto the next thing faster. Being conscious of how you tell the story helps with speedy recovery. Reading or watching biographies and autobiographies will help them see how the challenges and setbacks are just one part of a bigger story. Your kids will feel your compassion if you share your own story of setbacks and adversity. Help them tell their story of facing adversity. I love the brief outline of the hero’s journey quoted in the book Show Your Work! “In the first act, you get your hero up a tree. The second act, you throw rocks at him. For the third act, you let him down.”     – George Abbott.
  1. Jettison negative self-talk. Self-criticism and beating yourself up takes the trauma of one disappointment and puts you through it over and over until it is not about what happened, it is about who you are. No good comes from that. They need to remember what they do changes who they are, and who they are changes what they do. It is a cycle of learning and growing and ultimately becoming the person that can have the dream.
  1. Help them with an accurate assessment of what could have been executed in a more skillful way. This doesn’t happen when they are in the depth of despair over a bitter disappointment; this happens later. Remember, the style of parenting that has you constantly in the cheerleader role, telling them “you can have anything you want” and “you’re God’s gift to the world” doesn’t prepare them for the real world. In reality, we all have areas of strength and areas that aren’t our gift. Help them with an honest evaluation of skills and abilities; but put the brakes on when you hear them verbally berating their abilities in a way that shames and diminishes them. Focus on how to do better next time. And help them understand where their strengths are, because they’ll accomplish the most if they work in areas where they’re naturally strong.
  1. Teach them to follow the joy. When things don’t work out there is often ambivalence at work. Was it really an intention of the heart, or just a “should” in their life? If there wasn’t a commitment to really do the work to prepare, then why? Were there competing intentions and therefore lack of focus? If they learn to follow the dreams that have energy and enthusiasm, follow what holds their interest, not yours, they’ll go farther. Yes, life has responsibilities. Yes, there are consequences to the choice of not doing the work required. And admittedly, sometimes that work is uninspiring. Let’s face it, not every kid is going to love every required class/assignment in high school or college. There’s a balance between doing what’s necessary and doing what really lights you up. We want more for our kids than just being successful hoop jumpers – get the grades, get into college, get the degree, get the job, get the paycheck. If they do it all successfully, but there is no joy in it, ultimately there will come a point of burnout and disillusionment. Their life mission will resonate with an aliveness that lets them know they’re on track.
  1. Ask empowering questions. Here are a few from a much longer list that coaches use.
    • What is this experience teaching you?
    • What have you learned?
    • What’s your next step from here?
    • What are your ideas for moving forward?
    • What is another path to your dream?
    • Is there a skill or ability to work on that will help?
    • What’s one thing you can do?
  1. Give her credit for going for it. Going for it and falling short is more a victory than not bothering to go for it at all. Lots of things can get in the way of what we want, but at the end of life most people are lamenting not going for their dreams. So teach your kid to give himself credit any time he takes a shot. And again, make it about the learning.
  1. Set an example. Do we love the world we live in? Do we express joy and delight with life? Do our messages about our world paint a positive picture? Do we demonstrate gratitude for our journey and resilience with our own challenges? Before they listen to you they need to see you live it.
  1. Embrace every experience. They need to have experiences that show the contrast of likes vs. dislikes, what works vs. what doesn’t. It is all information when they’re young and discovering their unique path. The “bulldozer” parenting style is one that tries to remove all obstacles and leave kids as smooth a path as possible. Resist that style because the learning is in the struggle. Of course they need to know we have their back, and we will stand up for them in situations where the power imbalance requires an adult advocate. But some things need to play out for the lesson, so don’t jump in take the learning away from them.
  1. Be sure they find a positive way to self-soothe. If you don’t help kids find positive ways to get back into emotional balance after a disappointment, their peers will surely help them find drugs and alcohol to self medicate. There should be an outlet for stress on a regular basis, not just when there is major stress and disappointment. Time in nature, sports, workouts, creative pursuits, yoga class, friends, community, ways to burn off energy (hike, bike, swim, parkour, dance, snowboard, hit the trampoline gym), escapism (books, movies, plays, dance performances, games, concerts, an occasional Netflix binge), planning an adventure, massage, aromatherapy bubble bath, whatever works. Be sure they have something they enjoy doing to unwind and de-stress, and have access to doing it.

There are amazing people on the planet (past and present) who have gained their power through a series of challenges (and possibly wounds), sometimes over years of trials and “failures” that led them through dark days. These people usually come forward as the ones who radically transform our world because they’ve experienced their own transformation. While it is painful to see our kids struggle, we want to allow for the possibility that something is being born and will emerge in time if we let it. A loving presence that holds space for what’s emerging is a gift that’s always in our power to give them.

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