Helping Your Child Cope With Setbacks

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Dr Lucy Russell Clinical Psychologist Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell, Clinical Psychologist

Picture this: Your child, undeterred by life’s bumps and bruises, fearlessly braving the tide of challenges.

Setbacks? They’re just stepping stones.

Disappointments? A springboard for growth.

From acing academic work to scoring in sports or navigating friendships. Resilience becomes your child’s superpower. That’s the power of positive parenting – instilling indispensable life skills that will anchor your child through every storm.

Guiding your child through life’s twists and turns is a highly skilled art! As a parent, you create opportunities for them to untangle their emotions, learn from their experiences and turn setbacks into comebacks.

I have learned this with my own (now teenage) children over time. In the last twenty years have also supported many children as a child psychologist, to find ways of managing setbacks they have been faced with in their everyday lives.

In this article you’ll discover how to instil in your child the importance of effort, learning and evolution, over mere success. We’ll talk through helping them handle the difficult emotions that often accompany setbacks.

Nurturing Resilience in Children

Resilience is essential for coping with setbacks and disappointments. It can be a difficult concept to understand and so I like to use the analogy of a rubber band when explaining it to children. This is what I might say:

“Imagine you’re playing with a rubber band. You can stretch it out really far. But what happens when you let go? It springs right back to its original shape! That’s just like resilience. Sometimes, life might stretch us with difficult things – like a tough homework assignment or a disagreement with a friend. But just like the rubber band, we can learn to bounce back to our normal selves after these challenges. That’s what being resilient is all about. It’s our ability to recover and bounce back, just like a rubber band does after being stretched.”

By teaching your child how to be resilient, you’re giving them the tools to bounce back from difficult situations and emerge stronger. In this section, we will discuss two key strategies for nurturing resilience in children: developing problem-solving skills and teaching emotional regulation.

little boy outdoors wearing noise cancelling headphones

Here are the 9 vital strategies you should use as you teach your child to successfully cope with setbacks:

1. Gradual Mindset Shift: Setbacks as an Essential Part of Life

Setbacks and disappointments are a normal and natural part of life. But your child does need to develop the coping skills to handle them. Learning to deal with setbacks helps children develop key characteristics they need to succeed in the future.

These include:

  • Emotional resilience. Being able to tolerate emotions like shame, sadness, frustration, anger, guilt and disappointment. Feeling them, but moving on from them.
  • Creative thinking. “Okay, this didn’t work out as planned. How can I adapt the situation or pivot my plan?”
  • The ability to collaborate.

Not all adults have these essential skills, sadly. They come with experience and support but some people didn’t get that as a child.

Encourage your child to see setbacks as opportunities for growth, rather than reasons for self-doubt.

2. Build Growth Mindset vs Fixed Mindset

Speaking from both personal and professional experience, I truly understand how important it is for our children to embrace a growth mindset, rather than a fixed one.

As a mother and a psychologist, I’ve witnessed first-hand that when children believe they can enhance their abilities and intelligence through hard work and perseverance, they’re much more likely to enjoy learning and show resilience in the face of adversity.

A fixed mindset can leave young people feeling helpless when they face setbacks, hindering their ability to transform challenges into opportunities for growth and improvement. For example: “I’m just not good at numbers”, or “I’ll never be a good basketball player”.

As parents, our role is to gently guide our children towards adopting a growth mindset. This empowers them to view difficult situations as stepping stones rather than stumbling blocks, bolstering their capacity to learn and grow from their experiences.

A growth mindset equips children with the skills they need to face life’s inevitable challenges and bounce back from adversities. It’s not just about their academic or career success. It’s about fostering their resilience and adaptability in every area of life. Ultimately this undoubtedly enhances their overall well-being.

3. Develop Problem-Solving Skills

Encouraging your child to develop problem-solving skills is one way to help them become more resilient. When faced with challenges, it’s crucial that your child can think critically and find solutions on their own. But to start with, you will need to go on with this journey with them together.

Take trying new things, for example. If your child decides to bake a cake and faces a setback, like the cake not rising, it’s an opportunity to brainstorm solutions. They learn to adjust the recipe or the oven temperature and try again.

group of 3 tween girls sitting together

Then, there’s asking open-ended questions. Imagine your child is upset because a friend didn’t invite them to a party. Rather than jumping in with a solution, I’d ask, “How could you approach this differently next time?” It’s all about guiding them to find their own solutions. Through these daily interactions, we can foster our children’s resilience one problem-solving situation at a time.

4. Teach Emotional Regulation

Helping our children manage their emotions is a vital part of building resilience. It’s like giving them a toolkit for life’s ups and downs.

Slow, deep breathing, is the most important emotion regulation strategy your child could learn. If your child is feeling upset, guide them through taking slow, deep breaths. This can help calm their mind and body, making emotions feel more manageable.

When we’re upset, our bodies often react by speeding up our heart rate and breathing. This is part of our body’s “fight or flight” response, which is designed to help us respond to danger. But when we’re upset or stressed about something that isn’t a physical danger, this response can make us feel more anxious.

Deep breathing helps because it’s like a message to the body saying, “It’s okay, you’re safe.” When we breathe deeply, it slows down our heart rate and sends a signal to our brain to relax. This helps our body switch from the “fight or flight” mode to a more peaceful state called “rest and digest.”

Secondly you can teach emotion regulation by acknowledging and validating your child’s feelings. If your child is upset because they lost a game, say, “I can see you’re disappointed. It’s tough when we don’t win.” This validation helps them feel heard and understood.

a little boy colouring with his mother

When we validate our children’s feelings, we’re communicating that their emotions are important and real. We’re saying, “I hear you, I see you, and your feelings matter.” This provides a safe space for them to express themselves openly and honestly, which is crucial for emotional health.

Lastly, model healthy ways to cope with emotions. When life throws disappointments your way, how you respond will directly impact your child’s emotional development. For example, when you’re upset, you might say, “I’m feeling frustrated right now, so I’m going to take a short walk to clear my head.” By doing this, you’re showing them effective ways to handle their own emotions. Together, we can help our children build emotional resilience, one step at a time.

5. Reframe Unhelpful & Negative Thoughts

One healthy way to cope with setbacks and disappointments is by reframing negative thoughts. When your child encounters a difficult situation, encourage them to look for the positives and focus on the big picture.

Teach them to challenge their automatic negative thoughts and replace them with more balanced perspectives.

For example, if they didn’t make the team, help them understand that it doesn’t mean they’re a failure, but rather an opportunity to improve and try again next time. This fosters a positive attitude and resilience, which contributes to better mental health.

a teenage boy playing a racquet sport

6. Teach Them to Seek & Accept Support

As a parent and psychologist, over time I’ve realised the power of connection but I didn’t when I was young. I have become more comfortable with asking for help over the years, and it’s key to helping our kids navigate life’s ups and downs.

A supportive chat when they’ve missed a goal in football can prevent emotions from getting bottled up. Our listening and empathy provide reassurance, making children feel heard and loved.

Create opportunities for your child to share their day-to-day experiences, such as the challenges they faced at school or the struggles they encountered with friends. For instance, during family dinner or before bedtime, ask questions about their day and encourage them to open up about their feelings.

A strong support network includes family members and close friends. Teach your child to lean on these people. For instance, when homework becomes a challenge, remind them it’s okay to ask for help. Emphasise the value of tackling problems together. It empowers them to handle tough situations more effectively.

This is going to be tougher if your child has been let down by someone in the past. But with your support they will learn to trust again.

7. Acknowledge Hard Work

Recognising our kids’ efforts, rather than just their wins, is so important. It reinforces the idea that hard work matters. It also helps them not to be “all or nothing” in their thinking. If your child doesn’t get something they have worked for it can be tempting for them to say all their hard work was a waste of time. But hold on, let’s challenge that. They may not have been chosen for the A team in hockey, but they came close and they increased their skill levels while they were working for it.

Sharing our own experiences helps too. “Remember when I applied for that job and didn’t get it? I kept trying, and look where I am now.”

By doing this, we help our children build resilience. We teach them that they have what it takes to face life’s challenges.

Here are some more examples:

  • “I noticed how much effort you put into studying for your test. Keep it up!”
  • “Your determination in practising for the school play was impressive. I’m proud of you.”

By validating your child’s hard work, you’re boosting their confidence in facing similar challenges next time.

a young girl surfing

8. Set Realistic Goals

If your child has a setback, they might need time to process it emotionally. But after that, help them take constructive action.

For example, let’s imagine your child is still dreaming of making it into that school A team in hockey.

Help them identify areas needing improvement and brainstorm actionable steps to achieve their targets. Make goal setting a collaborative process, where you discuss and support their aspirations. Here are some ideas for helping your child set realistic goals:

  • Break down bigger goals into smaller, achievable tasks.
  • Set short-term AND long-term goals.
  • Encourage flexibility and adaptability in their plans.

For instance, a goal-oriented plan might include joining a local hockey club to improve their skills or setting a target to practice every day.

9. Teach Them to Laugh About It (When the Time is Right)

Sometimes, a good laugh can be an effective way to cope with setbacks. Laughter helps us see the funny side of things and can lighten the heaviness of a disappointing situation. For instance, if your child doesn’t make the school football team, it might eventually be possible to share a chuckle about how they tripped over the ball during tryouts.

But remember, humour must be used sensitively. We must never force a child to laugh about a situation they find distressing. Let them lead the way. When they’re ready, they might find that laughter truly can be the best medicine.


Setbacks in Specific Situations

Social Setbacks

Navigating social setbacks becomes increasingly important as your child gets older and moves towards their teenage years.

Perhaps your child wasn’t invited to a classmate’s birthday party. Encourage them to express their feelings, whether that’s disappointment, embarrassment, or confusion. I understand that as a parent, you feel their pain too. Remind them that these situations are normal and they’re not alone.

In this situation, you might discuss different strategies with them. Maybe they could have an open conversation with the classmate about how they felt left out. Or they might decide to focus on deepening other friendships instead. If your child has had an argument with a close friend over differing opinions, it’s a valuable opportunity to teach them about the importance of empathy, understanding, and respect for others’ viewpoints. But it’s also about learning that we can’t be friends with everyone, and that not everyone is “good friend material”.

These challenging experiences, though hard, are part of growing up and will help your child to build resilience, empathy, and strong social skills.

a teen girl sitting on some steps reflective

Academic Setbacks

Academic setbacks, like failing a test or receiving lower grades than expected, can be so tough for children and teens. They may feel not only disappointment but embarrassment or shame, frustration or even fear of not meeting their or your expectations. However, as a parent, you have the opportunity to turn these moments into powerful lessons.

Start by reminding your child that academic achievements, while important, are not the sole measure of their worth or potential. “Remember, these grades don’t define you. You have so many talents and qualities that make you unique.”

Then, when facing setbacks, encourage open dialogue. Let’s say your child has studied hard for a math test, but the grade doesn’t reflect their effort. Begin by acknowledging their disappointment, saying something like, “I see you’re upset about the math test. You worked really hard on that.” This recognition helps them feel heard and understood.

Next, guide them to see the situation as an opportunity to learn. You might discuss their preparation strategies or look for patterns in their mistakes. As you brainstorm solutions together, you’re not just helping them academically; you’re teaching them to approach setbacks with resilience, resourcefulness, and a growth mindset.

teen girls at school sitting with teacher happy

Physical or Health Setbacks

Injuries, illness, or chronic health conditions can be significant setbacks. These might limit a child’s ability to participate in physical activities or school, or they might simply cause discomfort and frustration.

As a parent, seeing your child go through physical or health setbacks can be heart-wrenching. It’s essential to reassure them, focusing on their strength and courage. A phrase like “I admire how bravely you’re handling this” can mean the world to them.

Encourage your child to express their feelings about the setback. They may feel frustrated, sad, or angry. That’s okay. Acknowledge these emotions and listen empathetically. For instance, if they’re upset about missing a soccer match due to an injury, you might say, “I can see how disappointed you are. Soccer means a lot to you.”

It’s also helpful to involve them in their health care journey where appropriate. This may mean letting them communicate their symptoms to the doctor or helping to manage their medication. Involvement can foster a sense of control during a time when they might feel quite powerless.

Lastly, remind your child that their value is not diminished by these setbacks and in fact can become stronger through them. The resilience they gain from successfully coping with health or physical challenges can strengthen their sense of identity as a strong and resilient person. This will help them successfully face other challenges and setbacks they may face.

Life Circumstances Setbacks

Experiences like the death of a loved one, parents’ divorce, moving to a new place, or even a global event such as a pandemic may feel like a significant setback to your child. They may feel like it takes all their emotional energy just to keep going through this event. Therefore, they may not have much energy for other areas of their life. They may feel like they’re treading water.

Your child may have suffered a tangible loss like the bereavement of a family member or pet, or more of an emotional loss through change. For example if a child moves to a new area, they may experience a grief reaction for everything they have left behind. All change can be experienced as loss or grief.

Without dismissing their sense of loss, assure your child that change, while challenging, can bring new opportunities. You might say, “I understand you’re scared about moving. But we’ll explore our new area together.”

In times of a family, community or global crisis – like a pandemic – confusion and anxiety may reign. In a situation like this, providing a sense of safety and consistency are absolutely crucial. Keep routines as regular as possible and let your child know that it’s normal to feel unsettled and discombobulated.

Case Study: Seven Year-Old Isla

Meet Isla, a bright seven-year-old who faced a series of challenging situations. One notable setback was not making the school football team, an event that deeply disappointed her. Her parents, recognizing her distress, took several empathetic and effective steps to help her navigate this tough time.

Acknowledging Isla’s feelings was their first move. They gently told her, “We see how upset you are about the football team, and it’s completely understandable.”

Next, they nurtured resilience in Isla. They emphasised her other strengths—her creativity, kindness, and enthusiasm. They also suggested alternatives. Perhaps she could join a local community team, or explore drama club, an area aligning with her creative spirit.

little girl holding parents hands

A good night’s sleep was another priority. They knew Isla’s ability to handle stress and emotions improved with rest. So, they consistently maintained her bedtime routine, ensuring she got enough sleep each night.

Finally, they helped Isla reframe the situation. Instead of viewing the football team rejection as a failure, they guided her to see it as a learning experience. They asked her, “What can we learn from this?” and “How can we apply this in future situations?” This approach nurtured her growth mindset.

Through these strategies, Isla’s parents profoundly affected her ability to handle disappointments. Their consistent support, patience, and understanding helped Isla grow stronger and more adaptable, ready to face life’s inevitable challenges.

Case Study: Arvind, age 12

Arvind, an outgoing twelve-year-old who loved playing the violin, struggled when he was not selected for the school’s prestigious string quartet. His parents played a key role in navigating through this disappointment.

His parents acknowledged his upset, sharing stories of their personal setbacks and demonstrating that disappointments are a natural part of life, not to be feared.

Arvind was encouraged to articulate his feelings, knowing it’s okay to be upset. His parents underscored that each setback can be a stepping stone towards success.

Together, they explored ways to improve his violin skills. This action-oriented approach turned his disappointment into a learning opportunity, fostering a growth mindset.

Arvind’s parents introduced him to famous musicians who had overcome difficulties, emphasising that resilience often stems from adversity. This gave Arvind real-life role models to inspire him.

Exploring new activities, Arvind discovered started to get involved with digital art and stage management as well as continuing to play the violin. This helped him find new sources of confidence and broadened his interests beyond music.

Importantly, Arvind was reminded of his value beyond his musical abilities. His parents highlighted his unique qualities like his helpful nature and inquisitiveness, reinforcing his self-esteem and resilience.

By embracing these strategies, Arvind was supported through his setback, evolving into a more resilient young person, prepared for future challenges.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can I comfort my disappointed child?

Validate and empathize with your child’s feelings when they’re disappointed. Reassure them that experiencing disappointment is a normal part of life. Encourage them to express their feelings but also help them to move on in a healthy way if you can.

What activities help children deal with disappointment?

You can help your child cope with setbacks by involving them in resilience-building activities. Role-playing, exploring stories of individuals overcoming obstacles, and teaching stress management techniques are all beneficial.

What role do parents play in children’s ability to manage disappointment?

As parents, we guide our children through their disappointments. Highlight to your child that setbacks are normal. We all have them. Your empathetic response and problem-solving orientated coaching are vital in fostering your child’s resilience.

How can I explain disappointment to my child?

Use relatable examples and age-appropriate language to explain disappointment. Emphasize that everyone experiences setbacks, and these feelings are okay. Reinforce that managing setbacks is a learned and beneficial skill.

For example, you could explain disappointment by equating your child’s loss in a board game to the initial struggles of learning to ride a bike. Convey that such setbacks can lead to growth, similar to how their perseverance in cycling resulted in mastery.

How can I help my child manage setbacks?

Aid your child in handling setbacks by emphasizing the importance of extracting lessons from disappointments. Encourage problem-solving skills and self-care routines. Celebrate their perseverance and past triumphs to bolster their resilience.

How can I help my child overcome feelings of being a disappointment?

To help your child tackle feelings of inadequacy, nurture their self-esteem. Make sure they understand setbacks are not reflective of their worth. Establish an environment for open dialogue, emphasize their unique strengths, and guide them in setting achievable goals, instilling a sense of purpose that transcends immediate setbacks.

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Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children.

Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.

Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.

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