When Bad Things Happen: Learning to Bounce Back

By: Terre Thomas

“The more practice your children have learning to handle smaller losses and disappointments, the better prepared they will be when something big happens that disrupts their world.”

I got the bad news about thirty minutes before I had to pick up a carpool of kids across town. I had just found out that I was not chosen for a yearlong project that I had poured my very best work into for the application. It was too late to call one of the other parents to pick up the kids, so I pointed the minivan in the direction of the school and cried a little as I drove to get them. As I got closer, I also had an internal conversation with myself about whether I should pull over, put on a little makeup, and simply pretend that everything was fine when the kids piled into the car or should I use this as an opportunity to show them that even confident grown-ups can have setbacks that can be devastating when they happen. I opted for the latter.

The carpool of kids ranged in age from second to seventh grade—my own two being the youngest and one of the oldest. All the kids liked me, and we had had many an interesting conversation during our thirty minute rides home from school. Once they got loaded into the van and settled, I announced that I had some personal bad news I wanted to share with them and that I was going to need some support and special attention from them if they could.

[Related: Breaking Bad News to Children and Teens >]

I got a little teary telling my story and then I answered their questions about what was I going to do about the situation. I told them that I was just going to take a little time to be disappointed and sad and it already helped that they let me talk about it with them. I said that once I felt a little better I would take a look to see if there was anything I could have done differently or better, and then I would dust myself off and look for some other similar projects because that really was the kind of work I liked to do.

As I dropped them off, each kid either gave me a pat or a hug or said something encouraging. Over the next few weeks, I shared with them how I was starting to feel better. And there was a very happy ending to the story. Several weeks after I wasn’t chosen for the project, I gathered up some courage and called the man in charge of the project to ask for his feedback about my not-chosen proposal. He said that he was very impressed with my work and wanted to ask me to do another bigger project instead but just had not had the chance to call me.

That afternoon, I bought ice cream cones for everyone in the carpool.

Life happens. We all have to go through good and bad times. Allowing our children to see setbacks and to witness healthy ways of handling them is a good way to prepare them for the inevitable day that a bad thing happens to them, because sooner or later it will. And the more practice your children have learning to handle smaller losses and disappointments, the better prepared they will be when something big happens that disrupts their world.

Resilience is the ability to bounce back after a difficulty or tragedy, and here are some tips to help children become more resilient and to draw on that resilience when they meet with a difficult time.

Tips for Teaching Kids to Bounce Back after Bad Things Happen

  • Talk about how bad things happen to people. Every person, at some point in life, will struggle with a difficult situation. What matters is how you react and work through the difficulty.
  • Find other caring, trusted adults for your child to build a relationship with. Resilient people have a strong network of support—in their family and around their family.
  • Talk about acts of resilience in your family. Perhaps a relative has been unemployed for a long time but has volunteered in the community while continuing to look for a job, or a cousin who failed to make the basketball team but then switched to the drama club and got a role in the school play. Highlight the positive effects of being resilient.
  • Tap into your sense of humor. Children can’t resist feeling better with laughter. Resilient people see the irony and humor in the darkest of situations.
  • Be there for your child when he or she is going through a hard time. Listen to your child. Stick with your child throughout the difficult time—for as long as it takes.
  • Do family volunteer projects together. As kids become teenagers, help them find volunteer activities they’re passionate about. Nothing works better to get one’s attention off of one’s own troubles than to help someone else with theirs.
  • Resilience is a state anyone can achieve. Your child, however, will be more resilient in some situations than others. Help your child see where he or she is especially capable in handling tough experiences alone and in which circumstances your child should turn to others for help.

Learning to Bounce Back: Tips by Age and Stage

Learning to Bounce Back: Ages 0-5 >

Learning to Bounce Back: Ages 6-9 >

Learning to Bounce Back: Ages 10-15 >

Learning to Bounce Back: Ages 16-18 >

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Breaking Bad News to Children and Teens >

Dealing with Tragedies in the World >

Dealing with Death >