Earlier this summer I was helping my oldest with internship applications. She had applied to half a dozen programs and was, fingers crossed, poised to work out of state for the summer in a field that she loves and is majoring in. Internships at this stage of her academic career are not just desirable; they can be critical to a student’s long-term career goals. Unfortunately, she ended up getting rejected from all of the programs and one of the programs that would have been a “slam dunk” informed her that she did not submit all of the required materials so her application was never even considered. At one point in the summer, her prospects were nil, nada, zero. For a kid who could always magically make things happen, this was a blow to her ego…and to mine.
As a parent, I am always hoping for the best outcome when my own kids work hard for something or try something new. When they fall short of their mark or things don’t turn out the way we had all hoped, I have to admit that I can be sad even if my own kid takes it in stride. And I can be especially emotional if they are, too.
I also know, however, that bad experiences can be a good breeding ground for the development of grit, resilience, tenacity, and sometimes even a little humility. I am sure we all can point to something tragic or just unpleasant that set us on a better path, helped us learn a lesson we needed to learn, or provided us with the motivation we needed to try harder.
College in general can be an excellent training ground for dealing with adversity. And if your student is anything like the ones I work with every day–and my own kids–then it is very likely that they will encounter something that you may think you want to fix at first. I am here to ask you, plead with you really, that instead of trying to make the situation different than it is, work on coaching your student to deal with disappointment in a healthy way. You, and the world at large, will never be able to shield them from hard times, and the more they can learn to handle stumbles and fumbles, the better equipped they will be when they are truly out on their own.
Here are a few common college experiences and a few suggestions for coaching your student through them:
- Receiving disappointing news. A few likely sad scenarios: Your student is promised a job that would line up perfectly with their free time and it doesn’t materialize, or a friend promises to go with your student to college and backs out the week before move-in day. Most likely your student has had to deal with disappointing news before, but as they get older, sometimes those disappointments have larger consequences. What can you do to coach them through disappointment? First, acknowledge their emotion, whether that be sadness, anger, or something else. There is no sense in dismissing what they feel in the moment. They can’t “unfeel” it. Then, listen and ask questions, if appropriate: “Why do you think this disappoints you?” and “What could be the larger lesson (or bigger picture) here?” are two questions that can help them analyze the situation. Finally, give them time to process. While you don’t want them to dwell on the issue endlessly, you also don’t want to assume they should “deal with it” immediately and move on.
- Earned a failing grade or failed a class. Trust me, this day will come. It may come their first year, or it may not come until much later, when it can feel even more troubling. In most cases, failure in class can signal a need to do a few things differently. Every now and then it may be a message to change course entirely or try something drastic. What can you do to coach them through failure? Help them analyze what happened and get to the heart of it. Don’t accept “I don’t know.” Instead, coach them to dig a little deeper or ask for help from a professor or advisor. Then, talk them through a strategy to change can be and what information they need to know to make that change. If they think they should drop a class or change their major, they may need more information about the consequences of decision. Help them weigh all their options before they choose what they should do.
- Got rejected. Outright rejection as in “We don’t want you” for an organization, position, or a job can sting and feel personal in a way that failing a test or a class does not. If we were honest about our own experiences, we would certainly be able to come up with several in which we had been rejected, too. And we also know that these experiences often led us to earn other opportunities that were just as good or better. What can you to coach them through rejection? Depending on how they feel about the rejection, encourage them to reflect on why they are disappointed with the outcome. Is there a way to put it in perspective or to remove the feeling of personal failure? As with other bad experiences, suggest they find something positive about it that could help them the next time. For example, getting rejected for an internship may provide an opportunity to rethink what and where they want to work, or it could provide a chance to revise their approach to completing the applications.
- Got fired from a job. No one likes getting fired, and an experience like this can feel devastating for a young person. But people make mistakes, some big and some small. At my institution, we have sometimes had to let student workers go, usually because they repeatedly failed to do something despite warnings, corrections, and plenty of opportunity to make changes. In those cases, the best next step was to relieve them of their duties while explaining why they were being fired. As cliched as it sounds, these can be good learning experiences before they enter the world of work. What can you to do to coach them through a firing? If the firing was not because of a serious transgression, ask them to describe what events contributed to the outcome. Then, ask “What changes can you make to work on the issues you had?” Reflection and correction can help them make the most of the experience and hopefully make it less likely that it will happen again.
Watching your student go through something that upsets them understandably will upset you as well. But if you can resist the urge to “make it all better” by intervening or taking away their opportunity to take ownership of the situation–even if it was not the direct result of something they did wrong, you will find that they will grow from the experience.