Helping kids recover from disappointment has to be one of the harder jobs in sports parenting. After all, you are probably disappointed, too. It's positively stomach-dropping when your child is in perfect position to score a game-winning goal ... and then she misses. Or he's desperate to join the travel baseball team but doesn't make the cut. If your kid plays youth sports, eventually you're both going to be faced with disappointment. Not every play, game, race, or even the season will go the way he hopes it will.
The good news is that overcoming disappointment can—with your help—be a significant learning opportunity for your child. "Self-esteem is not being able to say, 'I'm good at such and such'" sport, says child psychologist Tamar Chansky, Ph.D. "Kids figuring out their strengths, their own solutions? That's really how they learn resilience" and feel proud of themselves.
Empathize With Your Child
Begin by acknowledging your child's perception of what happened, says Chansky, who is the author of Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking: Powerful, Practical Strategies to Build a Lifetime of Resilience, Flexibility, and Happiness (buy from Amazon). You don't need to agree with your child's statements that he's the worst player that ever lived or will never step foot on the playing field again. But you can empathize, and reflect his feelings, with statements like: "You are feeling so angry about this." Jim Thompson, executive director of the Positive Coaching Alliance, says, "Your goal is to get your child to talk, so ask rather than tell. Save the telling for another time."
Take a Break
Many times, kids need some time away from the game or incident before they are willing to talk about it. If your child's emotions are running high, it may help to tell her that you know she's upset, but she doesn't have to discuss it right now. Let her know that you'll be available when she is ready to talk.
Get to the Root of the Problem
When the time to talk arrives, says Chansky, consider your goal for the conversation. "Eventually, you want him to be able to see this situation more accurately and not be led by his feelings," she recommends. Your words of encouragement won't stick if all he can do is a picture, over and over, the moment when he bobbled the ball. Chansky recommends asking "What's the one thing that you are focusing on?" or "What was most disappointing to you about the tryout?"
If he can answer that question, then you can help him move on by gently shifting his focus to ways to improve his skills. He also may then be able to take note of things he did well during the game. If your child is a perfectionist, he's liable to think that one mistake sets a new (and unhappy) trend. Introduce the idea of the outlier, says Chansky. Ask him: If you catch 50 balls and miss one, what's the unusual event? The catch or the miss?
Get Ready for the Next Time
Once you determine what the problem really is, help your child brainstorm ways to fix it. He might ask for suggestions from the coach, do some extra practice drills, or even come up with a mantra he can repeat if he feels anxious. Help him set some specific, attainable goals for the next game or practice. Then praise him when he achieves them.
Dealing With Disappointed Kids When They Won't Talk
Depending on her personality, your child may show disappointment in different ways. She may be angry and destructive, in which case you need to help her find a way to channel that anger, such as by punching pillows or even growling.
If your child retreats when she's upset or sad, look for ways to draw her out. You might say, "I know you don't want to talk about it, but we need to figure out what really happened. Your feelings are making it much bigger than what actually happened," says Chansky. You can also try an indirect route. Ask her whether she thinks her favorite athlete ever makes mistakes, and how she handles them. You can say: "If a pro said she was a terrible player because of one bad day, would you agree with her? Would you say 'Yeah, I think you should quit?'"
"Disappointment is a great opportunity to reinforce positive character traits" like determination and resilience, says Jim Thompson. "We have a tool we call 'You're the kind of person who.' We say that to kids, followed by something like 'doesn't give up easily'; 'sticks to things'; 'bounces back'; 'doesn't let mistakes stop you from playing the game you love.' Hearing that begins to shape a kid's self-image."
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