Imagine that your teen just got some bad news.
Maybe your son just got a 65% on his last math test.
Or your daughter received a rejection letter from one of the top schools on her college list.
How would your teen respond?
It’s normal to feel a bit disappointed, or “down”, when things don’t go the way we had hoped.
But how upset we feel, and how long it takes us to bounce back, depends a lot on how we answer two key questions:
- Why did this happen?
- What can I do about it?
1) WHY did this happen?
When something goes wrong, it’s natural to ask yourself why it happened.
The problem is that there’s usually not a single “correct” answer to this question. In most situations, there are many different factors that could have contributed to the outcome, and no way of knowing for sure which ones had the biggest effect.
The choices we make about how to explain negative events in our lives can have a major impact on our confidence and resilience.
Our explanations for events can vary in 3 basic ways…
- Permanence: Is this issue permanent, or temporary? How changeable is it?
- Pervasiveness: How general and widespread is the problem? How many different areas of my life does it affect?
- Personalization: To what extent is this due to personal failings I’m responsible for, as opposed to external events that are beyond my control?
In general, pessimists tend to think of negative events as permanent, pervasive, and personal:
– Permanent: “I’m never going to get this right!”
– Pervasive: “I’m not a very good student…”
– Personal: “It’s all my fault…”
Optimists, on the other hand, generally think of negative events as temporary, specific, and external:
– Changeable: “I didn’t spend much time studying; next time I’ll start earlier.”
– Specific: “That unit was pretty hard.”
– External: “She seems annoyed; she’s probably having a hard day.”
Because they view bad events as temporary, specific incidents, rather than permanent personal failings, optimists tend to be more persistent, more willing to take risks, and better at recovering from setbacks.
As a result, optimists generally…
- Experience less stress than pessimists, and are less likely to get depressed
- Earn better grades
- Perform better in individual and team sports
- Have stronger immune systems, and are less likely to get sick
The good news is that optimism is a learned skill that can be improved with practice! By choosing to focus on explanations for negative events that are more temporary, specific, your teen can increase her level of optimism and have an easier time recovering from setbacks.
For example, here are some examples of how you can help your child turn pessimistic into optimistic explanations:
After getting a low SAT score…
Pessimistic: I can’t believe my score was so low! I guess I’m just not a good test taker. (Permanent, pervasive)
Optimistic: I can’t believe my score was so low! I guess going out with friends the night before the test wasn’t such a great idea. (Temporary, specific)
After getting a failing grade on a math test…
Pessimistic: Wow, I’m such a failure! (Personal, permanent, pervasive)
Optimistic: Wow, that test was really hard! (External, specific)
After receiving a rejection letter from a college…
Pessimistic: “I thought my application was pretty good, but they rejected me anyway. I’m never going to get in anywhere!” (Personal, permanent)
Optimistic: “I thought my application was pretty good, but they rejected me anyway. They must have had a lot of great applicants this year!” (External, temporary)
How do you think YOU would feel about these events if you chose to focus on the optimistic, rather than the pessimistic explanations? It’s the same with our students and learning to frame events as an optimist does will set up your children for success throughout their lives.
2) What can I do about this?
In addition to adopting more optimistic explanations for WHY bad events happened in the first place, it’s also very helpful for your teen to adopt the habit of asking:
“What can I do about this?”
This is a great question, because it shifts your teen’s focus away from the past – which they can’t change, anyway – and towards the actions they can take to improve the situation.
Depending on the nature of the problem, the answers to this question will tend to fall into 3 categories:
- Actions they can take to repair this specific problem
- What they can do differently next time they encounter the same problem
- Lessons they can learn from this experience that will help them in other areas of life.
For instance, imagine your daughter forgot about her history project until the night before it was due, and wasn’t able to finish it in time for class the next morning.
She could try to repair the problem directly, by apologizing to her history teacher and asking for an extension on the project, or finishing it tonight and turning it in tomorrow for partial credit.
She could resolve to do things differently next time, and write down a note in her planner – or set a reminder on her phone – to start the next history project a week before the due date listed in her syllabus.
Or, if she doesn’t have any more history projects this semester, she could ask herself what broader lessons she could learn from this experience. Maybe it’s a sign that she needs to be more aware of upcoming assignments and due dates, so she can start setting aside time on Saturday mornings to review the syllabus & course website for each of her classes and plan what she needs to work on that week.
When bad things happen, asking the question “What can I do about this”? and identifying specific actions your son or daughter will take to resolve the situation can help them feel much more hopeful, motivated, and empowered.
In addition to feeling better, taking action to improve or learn from the situation will help our kids to minimize the negative consequences, and reduce the number of similar situations they experience in the future!
The next time something goes wrong, suggest that your student practice…
- Adopting more temporary, specific, and external explanations for the event, and
- Asking: “What can I do about this?” and taking action to improve – or learn something from – the situation.
…and see how it affects their motivation!
What have you noticed about how your teen responds to disappointment?
What are your favorite strategies for helping them “re-frame” the situation and see it in a more positive light?
Please leave a comment below to let me know! Or feel free to contact me with your questions and observations at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 678-459-4669. I’d love to hear from you!
This article was originally published on Wendy William’s blog. Wendy is an independent educational consultant in Roswell, GA who helps students identify private schools, colleges, and/or graduate schools that are a great fit for their personalities & academic interests. She is a wonderful resource for families who are looking for someone to support them through the application process.