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Helping kids deal with disappointment

Ah, a new school year begins. Time for new classes, new extracurricular activities—and new disappointments.

Your child doesn’t make the team, loses the student government election or fails to snag a role in the fall play. Or maybe all three.

You end up flashing back a few decades to when you experienced similar disappointments, disappointments you hadn’t thought about in years. You feel your child’s pain.

But, says Seattle parenting expert Elizabeth Crary, better children start learning how to deal with disappointment now than when they don’t get that job, promotion or house in adulthood.

“Although it is heartbreaking when these things happen, it’s actually good preparation for life,” says Crary, author of Dealing with Disappointment: Helping Kids Cope When Things Don’t Go Their Way.

In her book and in her workshops with parents, Crary focuses on the two main components of helping kids deal with disappointment: their feelings and the situation itself.

Some parents are really tuned in to talking about feelings, but they might fall short when it comes to coaching kids in how to deal with disappointing situations. Other parents may be great providing kids the tools they need to deal with such situations, but they overlook their child’s feelings.

“Intuitively, most parents want to comfort their child when they are upset and hurt. Totally understandable,” Crary says. “That is fine for young children. As children grow older, many of them need to be taught to take care of themselves.”

Most recently, my 12-year-old daughter didn’t get the part of Louisa in a production of “The Sound of Music.” I had the exact same experience when I was her age—same part and everything.

This is how I helped my daughter cope: I took her out to lunch after the audition. While nurturing, that wasn’t necessarily the best approach, Crary says. “Diversion is understandable, but it doesn’t always help children deal with their feelings.”

I also asked my daughter if she’d like to take voice lessons. Again, Crary suggests, I could have done better. At 12, my daughter is old enough that I could have asked her what she thought might help her be more successful at her next audition, Crary says.

Chances are that my daughter will experience the sting of rejection many more times before she even leaves home, and neither lunch nor voice lessons will help her deal with that feeling, Crary points out.

She recommends that children have one “self-calming technique” to help deal with disappointment for every year of their age, up to age 12. Such techniques include walking or running, talking to a friend or pet, doing something creative, having a snack—this shouldn’t be anyone’s only method of dealing with disappointment, Crary cautions—and watching or reading something humorous.

Just remember, though, Crary says, that although you might empathize with your child’s pain, “what works best for you might not work best for your child.”

How do you help your child deal with disappointment?

Rita Rubin, a contributing writer for msnbc.com and today.com, previously covered medicine for USA Today and U.S. News & World Report. She lives in suburban Washington, D.C., with her husband and two daughters.

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