Last week I asked a student how her day was going so far. It was the beginning-of-class banter that I do each time we meet to check on my students’ well being and to get to know them better.
“It is the worst day ever. I had a flat tire on the way to school today,” she said. She was obviously stressed out and it wasn’t even 9:00 in the morning.
“Oh, no. That sounds horrible. Glad you were able to get to class anyway,” I said.
“Well, I ended up missing a test because of it,” she said flatly.
“Oh, no! That sounds even worse. I hope that your professor allowed you to reschedule it,” I said, trying to match her sad tone with an annoyingly upbeat, chipper one.
“Yeah, my dad was able to come change my tire. And I was able to email my professor and she is letting me take a make-up test this afternoon.”
“Well,” I said, “it sounds like you had a pretty lucky day. You had someone who could come help you; you made it safely to school, and you are able to take a test.”
She looked quizzically at me over her mask as if to say “Lucky? I don’t feel so lucky.” Or maybe she was thinking I had lost my mind. I do drink a lot of coffee during class, and sometimes I can be unreasonably peppy.
“Maybe one way to view this pretty crappy day is that it actually turned out well. Reframing the experience may make you feel less stressed.”
I have no idea if she took me up on that reframing her day, and maybe relentlessly countering someone’s frustrations actually leads to…well, more frustrations because we often just need to vent. But it did get me thinking about how our students–my own kids included–have encountered setbacks, challenges, mean people, and unreasonable rules. Life is full of them, and I am not about to sweep them away just so I don’t have to deal with a cranky or belligerent young adult.
No doubt, you will also hear your own frustated kid tell you how disappointed, angry, or sad they are about a situation at least once while they are in college. How we help them through it can make a world of difference with their coping skills and resilience.
#1 Reframe, refresh, rethink. Like the student I talked to last week, reframing or thinking about the situation differently can provide your student with a different perspective on situation. Your student didn’t get into a program or win an internship they really wanted? Maybe there is a better option down the road or at least there is something they can learn about the experience. I have told my own kids, “Even if you don’t earn a spot on the team, you will have demonstrated integrity in trying your best” and “Failed that test? What a great opportunity to talk to your professor and get to know him and his expectations better. You never know. He may be impressed with your maturity and interest in improving.”
Of course, you may not want to launch into a reframing immediately if, say, your kid just received a break-up text from a significant other. Telling them “Well, that is probably for the best. More fish in the sea!” may need to wait until they are emotionally ready.
#2 Say grace. Your student is on the receiving end of a good, old-fashioned tongue lashing? Someone makes a mistake that negatively impacts your kid? Stuff happens even to good people. And no one wants to be unfairly accused of cutting someone off in traffic or cutting in line or talking loudly in the movie theatre. Encourage your student to practice patience and grace towards others who may even be clearly in the wrong. When I heard the phrase “Be kinder than necessary,” I realized that was the aspirational quote I needed to remember any time I really wanted to let someone have it to make them as miserable as they were making me. That time to pause and be kind is something I have never regretted. And I have certainly benefited from others who have practice the same patience when I was not a nice person.
I do realize that yoou want your student to stand up for themselves in the face of injustices, and I certainly support that. However, I have also realized that one can give others grace–and forgiveness for honest mistakes–without crumpling over for lack of a backbone.
#3 Take steps forward. If I could list all the times I have been professionally and personally disappointed because I didn’t meet my goals or someone decided that my ideas (that are all good, mind you) were not worth entertaining, I could roll them out on a scroll down my sidewalk and across the street. It has always been my attitude, however, that when someone says “No,” or even “Oh, heck, no!” and I truly believe in my goal or my idea (and I have taken their feedback into account), I still find ways to move forward even if it is a baby step. Didn’t get into the job that they wanted? Encourage them to figure out how to try again or take a step forward by applying for a job that can help them build skills they will need for that dream job. Didn’t get the grade they wanted on a test? Suggest they talk to the professor about how to improve and move closer to their goal.
#4 Give thanks. I hate to admit it, but when I have been my most down, most disappointed, most despondent because all the hard work I did went nowhere because someone–or more than someone–wasn’t receptive or chose another pathway that didn’t include me or my ideas, my first instinct has been to curse and cry. How could they not see my brilliance? My effort? My sincerity? I have had to coach myself to stop for a moment and show gratitude. Even if I didn’t know it at the time, the setback was a good lesson. Instead of vowing for revenge (just kidding!), I had to learn to say “thanks.” “Thank you for providing a clear, concrete lesson in helping me improve my communication, in helping me refine what I really want, in helping me develop thicker skin, in building up my resilience.
This is not an easy exercise and certainly is not my own kids’ first instinct when they are upset by a situation or themselves. But it can be developed and with a little analysis after the fact, your kid can develop both the self-awareness to see how the experience has shaped them positively and the generosity of spirit that helps them feel more in control of their lives.
It feels counterintuitive as a parent to step out of the way to help our kids and young adults to experience disappointments. We often want to jump in front of the challenge so they don’t have to get hurt. However, a young adult who can deal with disappointments with perspective and grace is a young adult who will go further with less stress and more success. And isn’t that what we want?