Ciska Thurman spotlights how best to teach your children to deal with life’s setbacks
Most people remember the pain of early rejection (from a friend or love interest), the displeasure of uncovering weaknesses (‘I can’t draw’, ‘I can’t spell’, ‘I can’t throw’), or the frustration of not achieving a goal (failing an exam or losing a match). These are all unavoidable, everyday occurrences that our kids will face too.
As parents, we try to protect our kids from experiencing the finality of failure, and attempt to safeguard them from feelings of disappointment along the way. But is this kind or cruel? What if sheltering them makes them vulnerable later on?
The right approach
‘Our job as parents is to help our kids deal with life, not to prevent life from happening to them,’ says Joburg clinical psychologist Tracy Fletcher. ‘Part of that is being able to help our children understand what went wrong, rather than making excuses in an attempt to shield them from reality. To bear reality is an essential part of development.’
When does it start?
Tracy says that preparing a youngster for distress down the line starts almost immediately. ‘Identify emotions, name them, acknowledge what your child is feeling and encourage them through an emotion in a nurturing way.’
Differing levels of intervention are required at different ages. With babies, it makes sense to carefully select toys that are age-appropriate, in order to avoid unnecessary frustration. As our kids grow, however, we need to slowly alter or withdraw our impact on the end result. Playing board games with a five-year-old, for example, should include both wins as well as losses. Preschoolers should know what each outcome feels like, but this should be alongside a parent who can scaffold their experiences by providing the necessary humility or perspective.
Parental intervention when kids are of school-going age should encourage them to be ‘the best possible versions of themselves’ – not necessarily to be the captain, to get straight As, to play for the first team or to land the lead role (unless this is realistically achievable). Identify strengths and weaknesses in your children, and find ways to create an understanding of success that is more nuanced and personal, helping them become themselves, says Tracy. Most importantly, however, start to reflect on how you deal with your own disappointments.
‘It’s not just what we teach, but what we mirror,’ asserts Tracy. Nobody is immune to disappointment, so when your favourite sports team loses or a promotion at work doesn’t happen as you had hoped it would, attempt to handle your own disillusionment thoughtfully and with an appropriate expression of your feelings. Your kids are watching and observing when to cry over spilt milk and when to simply wipe it up.
Remember also to separate your own feelings of dissatisfaction from those of your young ones. Perhaps their below-average performance at a piano exam represents your dream lost, not theirs. We should constantly interrogate our motives as parents and question what is in each child’s best interest.
Tracy also encourages parents and children to create a culture in their families in which issues are spoken about and also reflected on, and processed in mature and healthy ways. The ability of your children to identify what they are feeling and process it together with a parent is paramount. Tough experiences lie ahead for them no matter what you do; it is about creating positive counter-experiences for your kids – exposing passions and strengths – to neutralise the negative ones.
Clinical psychologist Tracy Fletcher reminds us that, when it comes to building a healthy self-esteem, it’s all about installing an auto-response of ‘I have the resources to manage this’, rather than the default ‘I can’t and it hurts’. Here are practical ways to do this:
• Read your child’s emotions. Are they disappointed or are you?
• Tell your child how much you respect them, especially if they are doing their best.
• Keep in mind that you are trying to teach your child how to apply themselves in the world, not necessarily to always come first.
• Help children become the best they can be. Their personal best may be completely different to an imposed best.
• Accept that all of us, including our kids, have areas of strength and struggle. Help them with their struggles, rather than deny this fact.
• When your child hurts, you hurt. To help them manage their hurt, manage your own maturely and thoughtfully. Don’t avoid this by denying their disappointment, blaming someone else (externalising) or pushing them harder. We must bear our feelings, to help them bear theirs.
• Don’t blame others when your child fails. Help your children to take responsibility where they have made a mistake or fallen short of a goal. Teach them to be determined and try to avoid the need for instant gratification and validation.