Elena says she knew something was wrong the moment she got a text from her 14-year-old daughter asking to be picked up from school a little early. “As soon as she closed the car door she started sobbing. Her first boyfriend had broken up with her. I just wanted to fix it. It felt like my heart was being stomped on, too.” No matter how much experience we have dealing with our own disappointments, it’s hard to see our tweens and teens hit their first big defeat or heartbreak. But setbacks can also pave the way to more self-compassion, self-awareness and valuable life lessons. Here are six expert tips to help your teen deal with disappointment and use it for growth.
1. Lead with empathy.
Sometimes teenage disappointments seem small from the perspective of a parent, and sometimes we see their mistakes coming from a mile away. But if parents dismiss or minimize teens’ feelings, they’re likely to internalize emotions instead of talking to you when things are hard. No matter what your teen is going through or how you feel about it, lead with empathy. If it’s hard not to say, “I told you so,” remind yourself that your teen doesn\’t have as much life experience as you do. Ask yourself how you would feel if you were their age and in their shoes, acknowledge their feelings, and express love and concern.
2. Hold space for their feelings.
Disappointments often bring an incredibly complex mix of emotions. Let’s say your teen tries out for a team but doesn’t make the cut. Their disappointment may include shame about their performance, grief from losing hope for a goal they cared about, and fear about how not being on the team will affect their friendships with those who did make it. Your teen may not want or be able to articulate all those aspects, but you can still hold space for them to work through whatever they are feeling and let them know you understand that their disappointment has lots of layers.
3. Ask them what kind of support they need.
Some teens need space to process their emotions while others want to talk it out. Some want downtime and others prefer to stay busy. Sometimes a parent’s perspective is welcome, and other times a warm hug without words might be best. Empower your teen by asking how you can best provide support. A simple, “What can I do that would make you feel most supported right now?” helps teens think about and speak up for their own needs: a powerful first step in healing their hurt feelings.
4. Affirm their worth and abilities.
Disappointments almost always involve some kind of perceived failure. They can cause teens’ self-esteem to take a hit and scramble their sense of identity: If that didn’t work out, what does it mean about who I am? It may seem obvious to you, but teens sometimes need reminders that their worth is not based on their achievements, popularity, or any external factor. Disappointments also provide an opportunity to tell them all the things you and others appreciate about them, strengthening your teen’s evolving identity. Your unconditional love provides a template for teens knowing how to love themselves even when things fall short of their expectations.
5. Give them a comprehensive coping toolkit.
Disappointed teens can get drawn into spirals of negative thinking, and negative thoughts feed negative emotions. When they can’t break that cycle, they may be more vulnerable to depression, anxiety and self-criticism. Prepare your teen with tools like affirmations, self-compassion, and these stress strategies. Whenever they’re stuck in negativity, your teen can try techniques from mindful breathing to positive self-talk to practicing self-acceptance. This builds self-efficacy and lets teens know they are capable of self-care.
6. Help them use setbacks to fuel growth.
It’s never fun to encounter disappointment, but hard things help us grow more than times when everything goes our way. Give your teen the gift of a growth mindset by sharing stories of your own setbacks and mistakes, what you learned, and how you moved forward. Praise them for persistence, effort, bravery and resilience. As Winston Churchill famously said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” Disappointments give teens an opportunity to get clear about their values and identity, refocus their energy, and aim for goals that make their lives meaningful.