From Setbacks to Comebacks: Helping Teens Deal With Disappointment

All over town this past couple of weeks, you could almost hear the cries, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes staggered. Cries of joy and cries of pain, as teens from area high schools looked at posted “results”  and found out if they made it into next year’s school teams/groups/leadership positions—cheerleading squads, “elite” bands, the co-ed western dance team… drum majors, drill team officers, club presidents…and the cries weren’t just from the kids.  Parents cried, too. “When we found out she didn’t make it, we both boo-hooed together,” said one mom.  “I’d put so much effort into driving her to extra practices, and doing whatever else she needed me to do to help, that I felt like I’d lost, too.”  I could relate.  When I found out Allison wasn’t on a particular list (while using the browser on my phone in the grocery store check-out line) I almost dropped my bag of green beans and wailed at the checker.  She’d wanted this since she was in 1st grade.  She’d tried so hard.  WE’d tried so hard… how would she handle this setback?  What could I do to help her now? What should any parent do?

I guess grief and loss of anything follows a similar pattern.  First comes shock, disbelief, and complete puddle-of-tears anguish.  My husband and I both offered lots of empathy—thank goodness we’d both experienced setbacks in high school and could remember what they felt like.  Most “experts” (and I found a lot of advice online) say that’s the first and most important reaction for parents—let kids grieve, and offer understanding. Trying to gloss over things and telling them to “blow it off” and act like it’s no big deal is totally denying their feelings.  It’s good for kids to experience setbacks, no matter how painful it is for parents to watch, because it helps them build empathy for others and good coping skills for when they’re adults.

Facebook and texting have both helped and hurt the healing.  Comforting notes of support from friends can come your child’s way instantly, while at the same time they have to endure a lot of photos of celebration that are posted and shared by the “winners”.  Ouch—like salt on a wound.

After sadness comes anger.  Parents are angry—some are wanting to challenge the rules, write letters…and of course, kids get angry, too.  “I’m dropping out”, or “I’m quitting the team”, or “I hate everyone”, or “I’m moving to another school” might be the responses.  I heard all of that from my own child, and more.

I chose to stay in empathy mode, actually going over with her the other schools that are available, why we can’t instantly sell our house and move, how she might be able to live with a relative if she wanted to move out of the district…she didn’t like any of the alternatives (which is what I predicted), and I think the empathy and information I provided helped her focus on the next and what I think is the most important stage of loss: re-grouping.

This is the part where parents hold their breath, because we all know that teens often have a hard time with this.  They can’t see a light at the end of the tunnel and want to stop the pain as fast as possible.  They were looking for a change when they tried out for whatever—a change in status, a change in activities, perhaps the chance to belong to a group, and when they don’t succeed, they often try to feel better by creating their own change.  Which can be good or bad.  We all probably know of people who, after a setback during their teen years, turned to drugs and alcohol, and/or changed their group of friends to “the wrong crowd”, and/or altered their looks in a shocking way.  Sadly, we’ve all heard about teens who choose to end their life after a setback.

When a door closes, God opens another, I believe, and as parents, it’s our job to help our kids see that door.   But sometimes that can take awhile, so I think in the meantime parents can help their kids make other, quicker positive changes to help them get by.  Have they been talking about wanting to get in shape, get a new haircut, a new outfit?  Do they want to get a job? Maybe you can help them think of places to apply. Can you help them improve their sports skills or studying skills or whatever they need to do to reach their try-out goal in the future? Or maybe help them focus on a different  talent?  It might be fun to craft a “battle plan” with them.   Is it time for them to nurture some old friendships, maybe throw a party? Or, dive into community service together—there’s nothing like helping others to help you forget about your own challenges, not to mention help you feel appreciated, while making a difference in the world at the same time. (One of our favorite organizations is Special Olympics-if your teen is a finish line greeter at a Special Olympics track meet, I guarantee he/she will get instant appreciation!) (Special Olympics has year-round volunteer opportunities—Google your state’s Special Olympics website.  In Texas, it’s

The experts say that parents should model good coping skills when faced with their own disappointments, and if there’s one thing I think my teen knows about me, it’s that I generally put one foot in front of the other and keep moving on.  I’d like to think that somehow that knowledge helped her.  Because within a couple days of getting the bad news, she was crafting a “comeback”, on her own.   She plans to try out for an officer position again next year, and made a list of everything she needs to do to reach her goal.  In the meantime, she’s hoping she can be elected to a committee position within the same group (tryouts are today).

And I’m just hoping to be able to exhale—at least, for a little while.

10 thoughts on “From Setbacks to Comebacks: Helping Teens Deal With Disappointment”

  1. Thanks this helps alot. My daughter missed out in getting into the volleyball team. I feel so bad for her. After years of encouraging her to try out for sport she finally did, and then missed out, it is such a shame. But there is always next term 🙂

  2. This was great, thank you. It helps to know that what I’m feeling for my daughter is normal. I hurt for her, and I felt a little helpless, but now I have a better idea on how to help her through this. It’s really hard to see your children hurting. I feel better prepared to handle the next several days. Thanks again!

  3. I found this article while searching the topic “helping your child deal with disappointment”. I did find it helpful. My daughter received a devastating rejection yesterday and my heart is aching for her (imagine being a 14 y/o girl and being the ONLY one of your friends who applied for a program who was not chosen, ouch), and I am concerned with how it will affect her self-confidence. At the same time I don’t want to make any mis-steps.

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