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How to Help Teens Deal with Rejection

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The Letdown: Extracurricular

Assigned a bit part in the school play or crushed in the student-body election: Your teen put her mind to something and fell short. No one likes to lose, so it's your job as a parent to make sure she doesn't get discouraged.

Why It's a Big Deal: Trying out or auditioning involves a calculated risk, so teens who end up not making it tend to beat themselves up ("I'm such a loser!") or lash out at others ("The tryouts were fixed!"). Proactivity and confidence can fall by the wayside, says women's career and leadership coach Kris Parfitt, when people would rather feel sorry for themselves than figure out what they need to do to improve.

How to Help: Avoid bad-mouthing the school or teachers, advises Parfitt; instead, let your teen do the talking. Ask her what she thinks she could have done better or differently. If she's interested in trying again, encourage her to ask the coach or teacher how she can improve. Seeking out interim activities (an intramural sports league, a community theater group) will help her practice. You can also capitalize on your teen's ambition by exploring all aspects of her interest. For example, encourage a Broadway aspirant who can't carry a tune to consider directing or costume design instead.

The Letdown: Academic

Scoring poorly on a standardized test or being ousted from the honors program may be rattling, but even more devastating is receiving a skinny envelope when you were expecting a fat one. Colleges decline loads of qualified applicants, but try telling that to the kid who has slept in a Boston University sweatshirt since seventh grade.

Why It's a Big Deal: Students spend months crafting their college applications and often put one school on a pedestal; less desirable schools are slapped with the "safety" label. Not being accepted can come as a major blow, especially if your teen has already told everyone his first choice.

How to Help: Remind him that happiness is a state of mind, not a dorm room in Boston: Countless adults have built impressive careers at their second—and even third-choice—colleges. If you think your kid is overreaching from the get-go (say, a B student applying to Harvard), try to manage his expectations without discouraging him. Saying something like "Most students accepted into Harvard have a 4.0 GPA, which means you need to work extra hard on your college essay; I can assist with editing it" will keep him grounded but motivated. After helping your kid recognize it's a long shot, encourage him to give it his best effort. "I don't think there's such a thing as an unrealistic objective," says John Fuhrman, author of Reject Me—I Love It! 21 Secrets for Turning Rejection into Direction (Markowski Intl). "We're not here to guarantee them success. We want them to think that the goal is so important, they're willing to risk overcoming the fear of rejection and go for it anyway."

9 Dos & Don'ts of Teen Rejection

  • Do acknowledge that your kid took a risk. That alone is worth celebrating.
  • Don't trivialize your child's feelings. It may not seem like a big deal to you, but right now it's the world to him.
  • Do offer perspective. Sharing a personal story of a time when you overcame a hurtful snub proves that life does go on.
  • Don't be petty. You can't teach your kid to be the bigger and better person when you resort to name-calling yourself.
  • Do encourage your teen to vent. Airing her frustration "off the record" with you—instead of publicly on Facebook or Twitter—will help her save face in the long run.
  • Don't avoid the issue. Even if your son says he doesn't want to talk about it, try again later. He'll come around.
  • Do try to lift her spirits. Taking a walk together, watching a goofy movie or grabbing lunch at her favorite restaurant will help clear her mind.
  • Don't play the blame game. It's hard for kids to take responsibility for their own shortcomings when they're busy pointing the finger at others.
  • Do seek outside help. If your teen clams up around you, encourage her to talk to a sibling, grandparent, teacher or other adult mentor.

Originally published in the March 2012 issue of Family Circle magazine.