Dealing with Kids's Setbacks

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By Dan Coulter

Some days it just seems all too much. You get a call from the school about an incident with your son. Or your daughter comes home defiant and tearful. And whatever you do seems like the wrong thing.

Well, it's probably not. The right thing to do isn't always the perfect thing. Or rather, you don't need to find the perfect solution to do something that helps. If you're like most parents (and by most parents, I mean, me) you don't routinely hit the ball out of the park. There's a fair amount of trial and error involved.

And it's even more of a challenge as your child gets older. We usually do too much or too little. But it helps when you start to understand that this is the way it works. Raising children, and especially children with special needs, is a constant state of discovering what - and how much -- to do. For one thing, you never know how much independence they can handle until you give them too much.

It's sort of like being in a sailboat. Whatever your destination, you're constantly dealing with winds trying to blow you off course. You often have to tack back and forth, not always able to steer exactly toward your goal, but constantly getting closer, until you reach it.

Just as we can't usually sail directly to our goals, we often can't help our kids solve problems immediately. But if we keep providing course corrections and don't get discouraged, we can help them make steady progress.

Of course, sometimes it's hard not to get discouraged. And sometimes we're too close to an event to see the better courses of action. So we need to be careful about making decisions affecting the future in a fury of frustration. "We're never going to a fast food restaurant again!" or "I'm going to call that child's mother and give her a piece of my mind!" Radical solutions can sometimes do more harm than good.

Better to wait and look at the problem with the perspective a little time can give, even if it's only an hour or a day. And it always helps to step outside the problem and look at it objectively. What caused the problem? What can you or your child do differently?

If you need to convince your child to do something different, what incentives can you come up with? Focus on how he can get something he wants if he takes a certain course of action. And success is an amazing teacher. If a child tries something and it works, she'll almost always put it in her bag of tricks.

In my experience, negative consequences tend to shut down kids' minds. But even stubborn minds tend to seek out pleasure and the prospect of positive results. Be careful of getting dragged down into a contest of wills. "Because I say so," is not a convincing argument. And kids often find creative ways around obeying ultimatums. You've got to be the parent. You may not be smarter than your kids (I know this first-hand), but you have more experience. And you have a secret weapon. You love them even when they lose control.

They may be overwhelmed by the moment and frozen in injustice or disappointment or hopelessness. But adults tend to understand that there are few things more powerful than knowing someone cares about you and believes in you no matter what. Just listening to their frustration or anger can help defuse it. Have you ever seen your child so upset that he didn't want anyone suggesting solutions? You just don't UNDERSTAND! It's an insult to suggest there was anything else he could have done! It was just UNFAIR!

By staying calm, you can help the storm pass. You can be the safe haven. You can repair the torn sails and restock the ship and supply fresh navigation charts. And give your child the confidence to try again.

Belief is a powerful force. If you convince your daughter she can succeed, her chances of reaching a goal go up dramatically. Sometimes, belief is everything.

My wife has an uncle (Uncle William) who had a setback as a high school junior. When he got his report card at the year's end, it said he'd flunked -- and would have to repeat the 11th grade. William anxiously had a friend take the report card to his mother while he went to his after-school job delivering telegrams. When he got home, he found his mother had fixed him his favorite dinner, fried chicken, and baked him a big apple pie. And she didn't say a word about his report card that night. The next day, they sat down together and came up with a plan. In spite of being scared, William went alone to the school and negotiated an agreement that he could go on to the 12th grade with his class if he retook some key courses in summer school and passed. He did just that. And he went on to succeed in college and graduate school. Today, Uncle William is a respected minister and community leader.

Love and understanding can see you through the toughest times and give your kids a lifelong example to follow.

So, the next time your child has a setback, you have an opportunity. You can understand that setbacks are not an interruption of the process, they're part of the process. However you decide to help, it can be the right thing even if it's not the perfect thing.

And you can't go wrong with apple pie.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Coulter is the producer of the video, "MANNERS FOR THE REAL WORLD: Basic Social Skills," and a series of videos for people with Asperger Syndrome and similar special needs. You can find more articles on his website at:

Copyright Dan Coulter 2004 Used by Permission All Rights Reserved

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