Resilience and Rewards: Grief & Loss Therapy
The battle of resilience versus rewards has had an impact on our survival throughout time. In our early years as Homo Sapiens, failure meant the loss of life. If our distant ancestors were not able to scathe off predators or successfully hunt for food, they wouldn’t have survived; hence lacked resiliency. Throughout our evolution, failure has been shaped and molded in very different ways. For instance academic failure did not result in loss of life, but shame to family and self. On the road of success and failure, failure tends to lead to a road of emotional responses and reactions rather than being life threatening. Resiliency can be measured not only by failures, but how to rebound from them. If our distant ancestors were in battle with a wild beast and became mamed; however, the Homo Sapien was able to still fight off the beast, they would have shown their resiliency and as a result survive. There has been buzz around how parents respond to their child failing. Some parent groups discuss how every child in school/sports teams should receive accolades even if they fail; others are very competitive and believe that only the best child should receive praise for excelling past their peers; and then some believe that children should get praised for trying even if they don’t succeed. Do different types of encouragement elicit different outcomes in your child’s success and failures?
First question I would pose to you is what purpose does praise give when a child participates in an activity? Some would argue that praise allows a child to continue their efforts in a particular task as a form of encouragement. Some would argue that praise elicits entitlement. If your child is given a metal of participation for a mediocre performing, will that send a message to the child letting them know that they don’t have to try as hard to receive a reward? If children who receive mediocre accolades internalize that concept, I wonder if they will perform in later tasks just ok…is that it okay? Some children are born with gifts that allow them to excel at sports, academics, music, dance, puzzles, etc. When children try different tasks, you as a parent are able to identify what areas are their strengths and weaknesses to facilitate helping them reach their highest potential. When it comes to competitive social interactions through sports and competitions, there will most likely be a winner(s) or loser(s). If your child is a part of the winning team, they will get a reward for doing the best job at the task; on the other hand if they are a part of the losing team, they will learn that their efforts were not better than the other team. How then can your child overcome the rejection of a reward and learn to not internalize getting a reward just because they participated rather than developing a mindset that will allow them to rebound from the disappointment of not being the best? Research will have to be the driving force to answer that question; however, there is research that suggests that focusing on effort rather than outcome is effective for a child's self-esteem. With that in mind, the need for metals or blue ribbons, scolding or praise of an outcome can be eliminated if you choose to focus on the effort your child puts toward a task. Doing so will teach them the necessary skills to accept whatever outcome results from their journey to it. Continue reading to consider ideas about how to process what your child may be experiencing as well as tips to help facilitate resiliency in your child.
You may be that parent that feels embarrassed for your child, or guilty that you didn’t better help him prepare his part, maybe you want to stop the show because your child is no longer a part of it. Perhaps you are that parent that would like to run after your child and shower them with reassurances such as, “you did great”, “don’t worry, it happens to everyone”, “it wasn’t as bad as you think”. Maybe you remember a similar situation happening to you. Or you could be that parent that blames the director, your child’s peers, and so on. Ask yourself this, what is it that you wish to teach your child? And what is the message(s) that they are receiving by the way you are responding to them? There may not be a one size fits all technique that can help your child through their experience; however, there are some ways to help them through the situation.
First, empathize. Recognize what emotional reaction your child is experiencing and the story they make up about that emotion (learn about meta emotions here: http://www.therapyinphiladelphia.com/tips/how-do-you-feel-about-feelings) then imagine how it would have been for you experiencing that emotion…as a teen. Do the two of you react the same way to specific events and emotions? The last part is very important because sometimes as adults we forget how traumatic experiences were as a teen. Furthermore, we forget that our child might respond differently from us. Although we learned how to move past them as time moved along, your child is in abeyance and does not have the same luxury. Given your example, what might empathy actually look like?
Second, validate. It is good to recognize and empathize, but that is not enough. After empathizing with your child’s experience, it is then time to express to your child that you understand what they may be experiencing and labeling what you observed. For example, “you must be very upset that you missed your queue” or “I can imagine that you are frustrated after putting in so much practice and not having it go the way you intended”. Allowing your child to hear you label an emotion can help them start to understand their own emotional reactions and creates a bonding experience stemmed from your understanding of their experience.
Third, address. When your child calms, ask them what happened and where they believed they made an error. This step will allow your child to take ownership of their mistakes and analyze their performance to aid them in being able to self assess without projecting their mishaps on outside unsubstantiated sources. If your child did a great job at a task, ask them how they believed they did and what made them successful at completing the task. This will allow them to analyze their own performance to continue to have future successes.
Fourth, dust off...and give yourself permission to let the past go. Teaching your child to move forward will allow them to understand that they did the best they could without leaving them feeling defeated and internalize a bad experience. Moving forward you have gained valuable insight / experience. To help your child do this, you could say, “now that you know where you could have done better, it is okay to let go. It is okay for you to focus on today and future experiences. You are able to learn from what went wrong and you know you did your best, so take what you learned and use it on the next task”. Or you could say, “Yes it sucked that you missed your cue and you felt too embarrassed to come back on stage once you left. I would like you to think about something…instead of running off the stage imagine what would it have been like if you stayed on stage and continued your performance”. Help you child expand the options that they have. Lastly, giving your child a silver lining can let them know that it is not the end of the world and that the issue is not the “failure” but rather how they will grow from the experience.
Let us shift for a moment to talk about kids who grow up to be adults and their responses to bad performances). Think about an employee who was recently told that they are not working up to par, a sales manager that was told that their sales are down, a business owner that was shown stats on how their company’s profit had decreased in the past six months. There are many reactions to this type of news. One thing they all have in common is that their performance is less than par. How they respond can be a direct influence on how they were taught to respond to poor performances during child rearing. Some adults may respond by blaming others, internalize negative emotions which can alter their self esteem, or other negative reactions; however, there are some individuals who will do the opposite by taking their experience as a learning tool to alter their performance, seek help for improvement, restructure their tactics to become more successful in their efforts or cut their losses by realizing their limitations and moving on to something that can facilitate their talents. The latter are examples of resiliency.
The idea of acknowledging your child for a job well done with a gold metal perhaps allows the delineation of an excellent performance to a mediocre one. Pacifying your child when they have not given their best effort will perhaps leave your child feeling that the issue in their performance was caused by something other than their own doing not allowing them to learn to take responsibility for their own performance/actions; hindering resiliency. Perhaps encouraging your child to do their best for the sake of their own learning, enjoyment, gratification or whatever internal or external motivators that interests your child may be more productive than giving them a participation metal when they didn't work hard to receive it. The expectation that they should receive accolades in when they don’t do well can cause a thought misconception that makes them believe that they should receive rewards for just showing up.
In summation, you as a parent have the ability to help your child learn effective methods to handle disappointments such as being in second place or not doing a good job at a task. You also have the ability to facilitate their learning and promote their successes when you focus on the effort put into a task rather than the outcome. How your child learns how to be reliant can have lasting effects when they then become adults.
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