Disappointment is a part of life that the teenage years provide plenty of practice in managing. The approach teens develop towards disappointment can set them up for later success, or put the brakes on their ambitions for life.

Yesterday I experienced a big disappointment. Something I wasn’t expecting really blindsided me. The first thing that hit me was all the emotions: hurt, anger and sadness. Then the questions followed, “why me?”, “what did I do wrong?”… It got me thinking about how my teenagers cope with disappointment and what steps we can do to help them get through a disappointment and be better on the other side.

A definition from the Centre for Clinical Interventions, that I’ve found useful is: “Disappointment occurs when we have an expectation or desire about how we want something to turn out and it doesn’t go the way we wanted.”

Disappointments can put some teens in a real tailspin. Here's some tips based on the growth mindset of Carol Dweck.

A positive approach to disappointment

Teenagers can expect to experience disappointment. It’s actually something parents need to let happen from time to time so that they don’t end up with a sense of entitlement and the expectation that everyone will make life work well for them. The danger of rescuing young people too often is that they don’t learn to problem solve or identify alternative routes to their goals.

As I think about the stages of disappointment I went through yesterday, I can identify four:

  • The initial emotions. For me these often are hurt, anger and then sadness. Just a really limiting sadness. When I think about my teens, they all seem to be a bit the same. Once you get to that sadness, it can often be so overwhelming you get stuck.
  • The questions. As I said above, self-doubt is a common response to disappointment. Why is this happening? What did I do wrong? Do I really deserve this? When I write the questions out, I realise it’s all about external things, not internal. This stage is all about feeling like the world is against you and you’re just an innocent bystander in this mess.
  • The processing. At some point you have to be able to process those thoughts and emotions and work out what you’re going to do about the situation. If you don’t you’ll just get stuck in one of those earlier stages, and that pathway leads to inaction and depression. I find that this is the stage where I can look more objectively at what’s happened and see how I’ve contributed to the situation I find myself in. Identifying mistakes I’ve made or assumptions I’ve based decisions on helps me to work out a new way forward.
  • Putting a new plan into action. This is sometimes the toughest stage. The one where you have to head back onto the playing field and have another go. This one takes courage, even if the self-belief is pretty battered!

Having the right mindset to use disappointment as a learning experience

If you look at the life of any entrepreneur, you’ll see that they have usually overcome some big obstacles in their life to become successful. The difference between success and failure for them often comes down to their mindset, or mental approach to life.

Carol Dweck, a Standford professor, coined the idea that people have either a “fixed mindset” or a “growth mindset”. A fixed mindset is one that our abilities are a set of cards we get dealt at birth and cannot be changed. Someone with this mindset get caught up in proving they are good enough, smart enough and talented enough. Disappointment is an indication of failure, that needs to be avoided at all cost.

But a growth mindset is one that believes our abilities can always be improved on. These people see disappointment as an error to process, work out a new way of doing things and then put that into action. They don’t run from challenges, they embrace them. That’s why people like Steve Jobs and Richard Branson become successful, because they pick challenges apart to constantly improve their ideas, rather than giving up and deciding they were wrong to try in the first place.

Watch this explanation from a TED talk Carol Dweck did in 2014:

If we can help our young people to develop a growth mindset, or an entrepreneurial approach to life, they’re going to be less likely to crumble in a heap every time they experience disappointment. They’re going to treat setbacks and obstacles as opportunities to learn and it’s going to set their “brains on fire” as Carol Dweck puts it.

So what can parents do to help tweens and teens develop a growth mindset? Here’s five ideas:

  1. Praise process not ability. As Carol Dweck said in her TED talk, we need to praise young people for their effort, strategies and perseverance, not because they are clever or talented. Focusing on their processes of overcoming challenges help them to build resilience so that they don’t look for a way out when the hard times come along.
  2. Promote persistence by using the “yet” word. If we can tell our kids that they might not be there yet, but they’re on the way, it tells them that we believe they will work it out. Yet needs to be a frequent word in our conversations with young people.
  3. Help them to focus on the future not their failure. It can be so easy for a teenager to get caught up in how badly they went on an exam, but we need to help them focus on the end goal. As I think about the disappointment I experienced yesterday, has it really changed my future I’m working towards? Not really. Then it’s not a failure, just something I need to work through. And by focusing on the future, you can sidestep all those ugly feelings and questions and just get back to working out a new way to get to the goal.
  4. Remove the shame of mistakes. The teenage years are when we should be able to make mistakes that don’t hang around with us for the rest of our lives. That’s why we have special laws to protect the criminal record of young people. If teens and tweens learn that mistakes are shameful, they will learn to avoid making mistakes at all costs. That is bad for them as people, and for the economy. So many great ideas will stay as just ideas if people aren’t willing to have a go at something for fear of being shamed. If our young people make a mistake, talk about it calmly, help them work out how it went wrong, what they could do to fix it and then support them to do that.
  5. Stop comparisons. Young people need to learn to not compare themselves to others in order to feel better or worse. Nothing in this world is fixed, so if a teenager’s perception of themselves is linked to being smarter another person or being a better player than someone else, they will only ever do what they need to do to stay ahead. And if that person’s situation changes dramatically, your teen could find themselves in a tailspin. Instead, help your young person to see life as about getting PB’s or the “personal best” of an athlete. Have they improved on where they were this time last year? Can they do something quicker than previously? Does something come more naturally than before? These are the comparisons teenagers should make, not to what their friends can and can’t do.

And one last word of wisdom. If the feelings and questions get a bit overwhelming, send them to bed early and see if things look better in the morning. It’s amazing how a bit of time can help you jump to the next stage of getting over an obstacle and give you a fresh resolve to push on. It worked for me!

If you’re parenting a young athlete where disappointment is par for the course, you might like to take a look at my ebook, where I unpack in greater depth the role parents play in supporting their children, both in the difficult times, and the good ones.

eBook Parenting Athlete

What do you think? Have you got some ideas about how we can help young people to learn from disappointment rather than be limited by them? Share your thoughts below.

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