I’ll never forget the time my wife and I took my son to a “pig scramble” at the Union Fair in Maine. Robbie, at age 6, was thrilled for this opportunity to catch a pig and was already entertaining fantasies of keeping it at a friend’s farm after he caught it…as if it was all already a done deal.
We had explained to Robbie that he’d have to be among the lucky lottery winners to gain entrance to the scramble, and then he had to be skilled enough at a task that he had zero experience with (catching a pig and getting it into a sack). The first part was a complete uncontrollable (like weather in sailing). The second piece was partly an uncontrollable…IF he gained entry, he could control his effort and attitude but could not control how much practice he already had or how well his competitors performed (not dissimilar to sailing at all).
As the organizers announced the last name on the lottery list, it sunk in that Robbie was out. In an instant, our sweet little boy was crushed. Giant tears started streaming from his eyeballs. My heart broke for him as he sunk his face into my chest, convulsing between sobs as the crowd roared with laughter while kids scrambled to get piglets into their sacks. Rather than the crowd’s reactions serving as means of snapping him back into the present moment, it reminded him that a major “injustice” had occurred and triggered more rounds of intense sobbing.
Struggling to find a balance between attunement with my kid’s emotions, and helping him to face a disappointing reality that was not going to change no matter how sad or upset he became, we muddled through the experience. Ultimately, I couldn’t say anything that truly helped; I could only (potentially) say things that made matters worse. Once he was ready, I balanced my empathy with a rational perspective that was barely heard (“On top of everything else, how the heck would we get a pig back to Maryland anyhow??”).
Our kids get older and become more sophisticated. They manage to grieve imagined outcomes that don’t come together after all. And yet, again and again, we’re stuck with this impossible balancing act ….whether it is a pig scramble or an Opti championship regatta. Do we console? Or do we spare them from the loss by making sure everyone gets trophies? Or do we tell them to simply work harder next time?
Here are seven concrete tips for helping your kiddo cope with disappointment…
- Validate it: It may be devastating, frustrating, annoying, sad, or many other forms of awful. Just listening and helping to identify feelings (without sounding like a “shrink”) can be HUGE.
- Let it sting: Whether it’s trophies for everyone or an ice cream sunday, we’re sometimes drawn to protect our kids from big disappointments. It’s okay to lose (even if it stings) and that sting can actually fuel motivation moving forward.
- Control the controllables: If/when they are up for eventually talking about it (that greatly depends on your relationship), ask if they controlled everything they could along the way (Training time/effort? Attitude? Focusing techniques?). If so, maybe it was still a success?! If not, maybe there are lessons to learn toward the next goal.
- Encourage coping that works: If your kid is having trouble bouncing back after a stretch of time, ask them how they’ve coped effectively with disappointments before. Does your kid have a good sense of humor? Is it time to crack a joke about flipping next to the finish line as you also ask about the next goal, or is that like ripping off a band-aid? Know your kid and ask them what’s actually helpful.
- Embrace the process (and AFLO’s): Disappointments are remarkable for providing Another Freaking Learning O Can something be learned from video, journaling, or imagery of the event?
- Encourage them to talk: They may need to talk with others (coaches, peers, and/or a sport psychologist) to better navigate this. Remind them that it’s okay to accept help.
- You can’t do it for them: This may be the toughest tip to swallow… Often the best you can do is to plant seeds, or you might not even be able to do that, and it’s no reflection of your character or your parenting ability. How and when they bounce back is largely up to them.
Tim Herzog trains sailors and other athletes to consistently be on top of their mental game. He has been a college sailing coach at Kings Point and Boston College, and now is a mental performance coach at Reaching Ahead Counseling and Mental Performance (reachingahead.com). Look for more of his wisdom in future issues of OptiNews.