Jared could hardly contain his excitement as he dashed home to check the mail. His heart was set on Princeton. He had killed himself his entire academic career to win the coveted admission. He was valedictorian of the senior class, captain of the basketball team. Everyone had assured him he would get in, hands down. His parents were so proud. From the time he was a little boy they'd told him how special he was and that he had the ability to accomplish whatever he set his mind to.
The entire family was stunned when the thin envelope arrived. The message was complimentary, but succinct: "although you were a strong contender, the pool of stellar applicants far exceeded the limited number of seats in the Princeton Class of 2016." When he saw the words "Unfortunately we cannot offer you admission," he felt like he'd been punched in the stomach.
Nothing in life had prepared him for this disappointment. He was used to winning!
Modern parents have been coached to build their children's self-esteem by offering lavish praise and encouragement. The prevailing wisdom has been: If we tell our children to reach for the moon, they will achieve in the stratosphere.
What parents often fail to do is prepare them for the inevitable disappointments and failures they will encounter. Graciously accepting defeat and searching for alternatives is a problem solving skill that builds character and humility.
Resiliency is the ability to persevere and adjust when faced with adversity. We all face adversity, but it's the way we react that dictates how we'll cope. We cannot control many of life's experiences, We can only control our response to them.
It is important to help our children harness inner strengths and to rebound more quickly from a setback (whether it's a job loss, an illness, or a death.) Helping them put a defeat in the context of a larger perspective might enable them to respond more positively. Otherwise, there may be a tendency to feel victimized, to become overwhelmed or resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as substance abuse.
When adversity strikes, we will inevitably experience anger, grief and pain, but pushing through to go on with the life's daily demands in a hopeful way is critically important. One certainly does not have to go it alone. Being able to reach out to others for support and to enjoy camaraderie is key.
Very importantly, as parents, we must carefully assess how much our own self-esteem is tied to the accomplishments of our children. Our children are very attuned to OUR reactions. If they sense that WE are unable to handle their disappointments it will be an additional blow to their already shaky coping abilities. We inevitably serve as role models demonstrating maturity and a positive outlook. If WE are not able to contain our frustrations, how will they?
Do we sometimes give our children an inflated sense of their capabilities, rendering them ill prepared to compete in a tougher, more challenging playing field? Carefully measuring our strengths and limits allows us to make realistic choices within our reach.
But of course, parents must walk a fine line. We certainly don't want to dash our children's hopes. So there must be a balance between sending a message of reaching for one's dreams, while at the same time remaining grounded and self-aware.
Linda Lipshutz, M.S., LCSW is a psychotherapist serving individuals, couples and families. A Palm Beach Gardens resident, she holds degrees from Cornell and Columbia and trained at the Ackerman Institute for Family Therapy in Manhattan. She can be reached in her Gardens office at 561 630 2827, or online at www.palmbeachfamilytherapy.com.