Live With the Imperfect

A parent’s guide to helping kids deal with back-to-school disappointment

By Sara G. Stephens

Each and every new school year beckons students with the allure of opportunity. This is the year they will make the football team, become class president, grace the honor roll, become popular, or just share classes and lunch period with their best friends. But behind every opportunity lies the chance for disappointment when these things don’t happen or simply don’t yield the same rewards the child anticipated.

Parents excitedly greet their kids with questions about their first day, or the results of their academic tests, or the role they got in the school play. Chances are, these questions will be answered with sullen replies relaying disappointing outcomes.

Hard as it may be to see our kids suffer, appropriately handling such incidents is key to living a successful life. “The simple lesson with anything negative is to be able to take the long view, to have the courage to ‘live with the imperfect until you can make it better,’” says Steve Heisler, author of The Missing Link: Teaching and Learning Critical Success Skills.

“What parents and teachers need to instill in their kids is that failure is only failure if you quit,” Heisler adds.

Parents can use a variety of techniques to help kids get past the idea of quitting, deal with the disappointment, and use it to develop into stronger, healthier individuals.

1. Be facilitative.

Heisler’s book talks about a student who tried to raise $500.00 for a disaster relief fund. The student raised only $300 plus change. Despite the noteworthiness of his accomplishment, the student was disappointed in not achieving the original goal. “The key in this type of situation,” says Heisler, “is not to ‘tell’ people about how well they did, but rather to facilitate their own ability to apply some personal reflection that both respects the distance traveled as well as the distance that he wanted to travel.”

Heisler believes that we, as parents, not only can’t expel the sting of disappointment, but also shouldn’t expel it, even if we could. Rather, if we can help our children experience the sting as a feeling they pass through on their way to wisdom, it makes the disappointment much more tolerable.

A facilitative teacher (in this case, a parent teaching her child how to deal with disappointment) “gets his or her student to look in the right direction, but to be able to see for themselves,” Heisler concludes.

2. Wield the power of “yet.”

Consider a child who comes home from school upset about failing a math test. Mom might consider saying, “It just means you don’t know the material yet,” advises SAT Tutor Moshe Siegel. “The ‘yet’ sends across the message that kid may not know the math, yet she will learn it in the future. The word ‘yet’ can be used for any disappointment the child faces in school,” Siegel says:

Scenario: A child complains, “I’ve got way too much homework. This stuff is impossible.”
Parent: “I can help. Which parts of the material do you not understand yet?”
Message: The yet implies that with effort, the child will learn the material. The word yet sends across the message that the mother believes in the child’s ability to learn the material.

Scenario: It’s the first day of school, and the child comes home and starts screaming how unfair it is that all her friends were put in a different class. She cries that she doesn’t have any friends in her new class.
Parent: When Dad talks to Mom about the situation, he should say, “Our daughter is upset because she hasn’t made any friends in her class yet.”
Message: When the girl hears the problem phrased in this manner, she’ll realize that Dad believes in her ability to make friends with her classmates.

Scenario: The child comes home the first day of school upset about how it went.
Parent: Mom can tell Dad, “Our son doesn’t enjoy school yet.”
Message: The “yet” shows the kid his parents believe he can change his attitude and surroundings so that school will be more enjoyable.

Scenario: The child doesn’t make the school’s basketball team.
Parent: “We see all the effort you’ve been putting in doing basketball drills. Not making the team just means the coach doesn’t think you’re good enough yet.”
Message: Yet implies that, “We believe you can keep working on it, and it will get better.”

3. Embrace the Stress.

Research conducted by psychologist Kelly McGonigal suggests that the stress of disappointment may be bad for you only if you believe it to be. Alternatively, people who believe stress is a fantastic thing feel fantastic even during stressful situations. Siegel advises that if kids are feeling stressed in school, then their parents should show them McGonigal’s TED Talk video, “How to Make Stress Your Friend.”

“Parents should not even try to explain this concept to kids on their own, as kids may not believe them,” Siegel says, “Kids will trust Kelly McGonigal, as she is a true expert in the field of stress.”

Whether or not a child can warm to the idea of actually enjoying their stress, parents need to keep in mind that they simply can’t protect their children from all disappointments, and it wouldn’t be good for the kids if they could. “Children need to experience setbacks because that’s how they learn to handle disappointment later in life,” says Carl Grody, LISW-S, of Grody Family Counseling in Worthington, Ohio. “Sure, it’s not fun to be cut from the team or to be bypassed for a lead in the school play, but there are life lessons in dealing with those situations that will help the child deal with challenges later on.”

4. Praise the effort, not the results.

Grody further recommends that parents use disappointments as opportunities to praise their child’s efforts. “Self-esteem comes from good efforts and good choices rather than good results, and praising those efforts and choices will help your child feel better about himself,” Grody says, referring to studies indicating that children who are praised only for success can become afraid to try new challenges, but praising effort helps the child learn that he can handle greater challenges through hard work. “Praise the work it took to earn an A rather than the A itself,” Grody suggests.

Author Alfie Kohn echoes this idea in his book The Myth Of The Spoiled Child. In the book, Kohn discusses situations in which children face failure, rejection, and defeat and how such situations can affect kids’ sense of self-value. The book admonishes parents to not let their kids’ achievements build self-esteem, as this creates a conditional environment for children to feel good about themselves. Children who have a conditional sense of self-worth often go through dramatic highs and lows and are at risk of depression. “Let children know that whatever it is, it isn’t integral to their value. They are better equipped to improve a disappointing situation if they know that it isn’t integral to their own value.” Kohn says. Finally, parents need to reward their children for trying, as children who fail are at risk of developing a fear of trying. “As a parent, you can combat this fear by rewarding your child for every effort made,” Kohn says.

Sometimes a parent’s biggest obstacle to praising efforts is the parent’s own disappointment, an emotion that must be addressed for the child’s sake. “Sometimes the children aren’t that bothered by not making the cut or getting into a new school,” Grody explains. “It helps parents to understand that the disappointment might actually be theirs.”

5. Be supportive.

In the category of what not to do, Kohn warns parents to not step back when their child fails. Children have a harder time dealing with failure when they are expected to handle it alone. “When parents leave their child alone in the heat of failure, their child believes that they are a lost cause,” Kohn warns.

Grody, too, emphasizes the importance of parents just being there to listen if their child needs to talk about the situation and to support their child. “It’s important that your children know that you’re there for them, win or lose, success or failure,” Grody says, suggesting that parents offer words like, “I know it hurts to not make the team. Is there anything I can do to make you feel better?”

6. Promote grit and resilience.

Although acknowledgment of disappointment by friends and family is natural and healthy, the key lies in how a student moves forward after disappointment, says Nathan Barber, a high school principal at an independent Houston school and author of the book What Teachers Can Learn from Sports Coaches, from Routledge/Eye on Education, set to be released September 6. “A student with grit and resilience can see the bigger picture and see beyond the momentary disappointment,” Barber says. He explains that Angela Duckworth defines grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” In a time of disappointment, a student needs to persevere through the disappointment and be passionately committed to reaching a long-term goal.

“For example, if a student misses the cut for the varsity cheer squad, he or she needs to move through the short-term disappointment and passionately pursue a route toward the long-term goal of making the varsity squad the next time,” Barber offers. “To be clear, neither grit nor resilience necessarily helps the disappointment hurt any less, but both attributes can help a student move beyond the disappointment in an appropriate timeframe focused on a long-term goal.”

Barber suggests that students can begin to develop grit and resilience by having a positive mindset. “A student should decide long before adversity strikes that, if things get tough, he is going to be fine, he is going to fight through the hurt or disappointment, and he is going to work hard to avoid the same situation the next time around. By thinking through the possibility of disappointment and his reaction to it in advance, a student can better equip himself to handle disappointment,” Barber says.

A student also can develop grit and resilience by adopting a “growth mindset,” Barber adds, borrowing the terminology of Carol Dweck. “A student with a growth mindset understands that growth, improvement and progress all are within his control. In other words, a student with a growth mindset who encounters a setback understands and actually believes that he has the capacity to grow, to get better and to progress. Grit and resilience go hand in hand with a growth mindset.”

Finally, and, according to Barber, perhaps the toughest part of developing grit and resilience, a student must take ownership of at least some of the circumstances that led to the disappointment. “Adopting a victim mentality or blaming others for one’s current circumstances represents exactly the opposite of what grit and resilience can do for a student,” he advises, cautioning again that taking ownership does not necessarily lessen the sting of disappointment but does, however, provide a student a clear path through the disappointment toward a better future via hard work, extra effort, concentration on a specific skill, or the like.

7. Encourage self-empathy.

Before they can tackle the task of developing grit and resilience, kids must first be allowed and encouraged to empathize with themselves a little. As a teacher, David Bennett says he always has disappointed students acknowledge the disappointment and let them know it is okay to feel that way. Bennett and his brother are counselors and administrators at a drug and alcohol treatment facility and have co-authored The Teen Popularity Handbook: Make Friends, Get Dates, and Become Bully-Proof. They also run “The Popular Teen” website.

“So many teens just want to immediately dismiss and deny their feelings of disappointment,” Bennett says. “After acknowledging their feelings, they can work to move past the ones that are unhelpful. Usually just acknowledging that they feel a certain way helps them feel better.”

8. Explore alternative routes.

Moving past the disappointment sometimes involves finding another path to the desired outcome. “The truth is, there is rarely one road to each destination,” says Matthew Ratz, M.Ed., a former middle and high school teacher and current college educator, “and students in the 21st Century need to be willing to do nontraditional things to arrive at their destinations.”

To illustrate, Ratz talks about a student who did not get accepted into his first choice university (University of Maryland) and needed instead to enroll in Montgomery College, a community college where Ratz taught.

The student was distraught that he needed to go to “thirteenth grade,” and wanted Ratz to write him a recommendation letter when he applied as a transfer student the next semester. “I sat with him and counseled him with the following guidance: if the University of Maryland is your goal and you want to go there, you need to put yourself in the best position to earn admission. Your high school GPA and SAT scores were not sufficient to do that.”

Ratz told the student that transfer students with less than two semesters of college are accepted to UMD at rates below ten percent. On the other hand, students with their Associate’s degree from Montgomery College benefit from a transfer agreement where they are accepted to UMD 100 percent of the time and can have their credits transfer to cover up to two years’ of classes (saving them nearly $7,500 over the four years).

“My advice to students who face setbacks such as being denied admission to their choice school (as I had), losing the student government election (as I had), not making the team (as I had), not scoring a “5” on the AP or a 1600 on the SATs (as I had not) is to focus on their big goals and explore alternative routes of getting there.”

9. Regain control.

Often, disappointment is rooted in a feeling of not having any control over the situation. To the student, the outcome of a situation, like not sharing lunch period with a friend or not getting into the school play, may seem arbitrary or unfair. Time is the great healer in this case, as with so many other feelings of loss. But after having time to process the emotion, a good strategy can be to work to regain that feeling of control in another area.

“I think it’s a good idea to help students find a positive outcome in a way in which they have some level of control over,” says Tosin Williams, a teacher in Los Angeles. “For example, if they didn’t make the sports team, don’t try to cheer them up by taking them out for a fun outing. Instead, brainstorm together to find fun ways to spend that block of time for the entire school year.”

10. Put things in Perspective.

Jolyn Brand, a college consultant and educational expert with Houston-based Brand College Consulting, is also a mother of four kids from 11 to 20 years old. She assists students with college decisions and rejections and was faced with her own daughter’s disappointment when she learned that she hadn’t placed into an advanced math course.

Besides not minimizing or trivializing her daughter’s disappointment, Brand listened to what her daughter had to say, then talked her through what happened and the subsequent consequences. She recommends the same exchange between any parents helping their kids cope with disappointment.

“Ask, ‘Did you do everything you could have to place into the course, or was it out of your hands?’” Brand suggests. “If effort occurred, then focus on that and not the effect, then ask the child long-term questions that may help put this moment of sadness into perspective. Will this matter in a year? Two years? Five? What can you do instead? What did we learn for next time?”

11. Don’t Snow Plow.

Family Coach Michelle Klavohn, MA, is also a mother of two kids 14 and 11 years of age. Her son had a challenging year dealing with disappointment in school.

He got a teacher that he’d heard many great things about and so had high expectations for a really positive year.

Unfortunately, this was not the case. Klavohn’s son dealt with a year of a grumpy, moody teacher, and the disappointment over the situation was devastating.

Many parents would be quick to try to “fix” this situation. But as a family coach, Klavohn had become aware of a new term in the parenting world: “snow plow” parents. “This is the kind of parent that seeks to bulldoze any obstacle their child might deal with out of the child’s way,” Klavohn explains. “While it may be hard to see one’s child deal with such disappointments, it is actually very debilitating to solve these issues for the child.”

Klavohn suggests that parents consider several points when faced with the temptation to snow plow:

  • What might my child learn from this challenging situation?
  • What damage do I cause when I rescue my child from a challenge?
  • What does my rescue behavior say to my child about his/her abilities?
  • How can it build my child’s skills and confidence to weather a “storm” of disappointment?

*What is my goal as a parent? Consider the idea that at least part of your role as a parent is to raise a strong, independent, fully-functioning adult. Learning to handle disappointments is a crucial life skill and we rob our children of the personal growth that is available to them when we insist on jumping in.

Rather than snow plowing kids through disappointment or helping them avoid it completely, Klavohn suggests that parents stay connected with their kids, affirm their feelings, and find positive ways to encourage their children and express
confidence in them. “One family I know has a ‘good job’ board in their hallway. It’s a whiteboard where they can affirm different qualities or accomplishments of their kids from the week,” she says.

Ultimately, when Klavohn asked her son about his year with the difficult teacher and what he took away from it, the son’s response was simple: “I learned to deal with it.”

“That was a pretty good lesson in our family book,” Klavohn remarks.

12. Be open.

When things don’t turn out as we had hoped, it could be because the universe is conspiring to push us in a new direction. This is an idea that Lauren Gaggioli, founder and head mentor of Higher Scores Test Prep, keeps top of mind in such situations.

Parents can take a cue from Gaggioli’s mindset by encouraging their disappointed kids to acknowledge how upset they are, but not get stuck in “that negative place.” Rather, they can learn from the experience, and then create a plan to achieve their goals at the next available opportunity.

“I really believe that things happen for a reason,” Gaggioli says. “It sounds hokey, but it is true. You have to trust that you are going to end up where you are meant to be. Work hard in the direction you think you want to go, but listen when the world calls you to pivot and change your direction.

“Don’t be disheartened by this. Your hard work on a different path will make you a stronger, more rounded person who is better equipped to handle the new challenges ahead.

“Be bold, work hard, trust always, and true failure is impossible.”