How can I help my 14-year-old child with Aspergers to handle disappointments? Almost on a daily basis, he feels mistreated by one of his friends, or something at school doesn’t go just right, or he gets into trouble here at home and receives an undesirable consequence. I don’t want to send him into a depression – but at the same time, I want him to be more resilient and responsible. Also, I’ve heard you talk about how we, as parents of Aspergers children, tend to be over-protective – and the damage that we do as a result of this kind of parenting. Is there some way I can help him without being over-protective?
If there is one lesson that no parent enjoys teaching their youngster, it is “the art of getting over disappointment.” This is partly because no one likes to be disappointed or have their hopes shattered—but it is a raw and honest part of life. Figuring out how to teach our Aspergers (high functioning autism) kids this lesson can be difficult though. We don’t want them to give up or lose heart. Here are some ways to help you teach your son how to cope with – and overcome – disappointments in life, and to grow from experience.
1. Allow your son to make mistakes. True learning involves making mistakes, which often leaves kids frustrated. Frustration requires a level of determination to see the problem through. Unfortunately, many kids lack a sense of resolve and give up on a task immediately if they don’t get it the first time, thinking that it’s too hard, or worse, that they’re “stupid”. Why is this? One theory is that our “drill and kill” methods have eliminated the development of creative problem solving, teaching kids that there is one and only one answer to most problems. Unable to get the one “right” answer, they lack the motivation to try alternate strategies. Another idea is that kids who are accustomed to a steady stream of positive reinforcement, often for insignificant accomplishments, are paralyzed when faced with something they cannot do immediately. Because they perceive things as coming to them easily, it is a threat to their ego to find something that challenges them. It is less threatening to give up.
2. Be understanding. Your son may not get over the disappointment immediately. This doesn't mean you are doing anything wrong, but not all kids bounce back at the same rate. Be patient and understanding and soon your son will grow to forget the disappointment itself, but your reaction to it and what he learned in the process will say with them.
3. Give your son time and space to deal with his disappointment. Not all disappointments are simple or minor, and even some that are will not appear that way to children. Not being able to play a video game, in a parents estimate, is not the end of the world. But for a kiddo who has been looking forward to that game all week, missing it may seem major indeed. This is why the best parenting advice for teaching children about disappointment is to carve out some time and space for kids to feel their disappointment. After trying to help your son see that this is a disappointment that may not be as serious as he thinks, sometimes you will have to step back and direct your son to continue dealing with his disappointment in the privacy of his bedroom. After a reasonable time, check on your son – and usually you will find that he has calmed down and has put things into perspective. This is a much more successful approach than telling him to simply stop being upset. When kids realize that they have a place to go and think about their disappointment, they will learn how much or how little time they really want to assign to their disappointment.
4. Don’t try to fix it. As a mother, your first instinct may be to try to fix the problem(s). However, just as it is a parent’s role to help her child become proficient in feeding himself, assist her preschooler in learning to use a potty, and teach her grade-school child to tie his shoelaces, it is a parent’s often unhappy duty to give a blossoming young adult the tools they need to cope with disappointment. Even if your son wants you to come to his rescue, resist the urge to pacify his hurt by taking action or dwelling on things that can’t be changed. This is not easy, but kids are often more resilient than we give them credit. Though children of all ages may be quick to dramatize their displeasure, many bounce right back. Look carefully at your son for cues, don’t bring up his disappointment if, by the next day, all seems right with the world again. Accept that your son may have recovered more quickly than you have!
5. Don’t try to save your son from disappointments (related to #4 above). Many parents erroneously believe that for kids, disappointment should be avoided at all costs. Everybody makes the team, everybody gets the same grade, and everybody is included. There are several problems with this attempt to make everyone feel good about themselves. First of all, it isn’t fooling anyone. Telling someone they’ve done a great job when they clearly haven’t is not only insulting, but it tends to set a tone of low expectations. Self-esteem is built through mastery, not through pretense. Second, it isn’t grounded in reality. Giving a child false expectations about his abilities and skills is not only dishonest – but unethical. Lastly, letting children face the letdowns of life, however painful, is necessary for emotional growth. Children who haven’t had practice developing coping skills for disappointment fall apart later on when no one is standing there ready to rescue them. Though the pains of life can be heartbreaking at times, they are learning experiences that, when faced with the loving support of a faithful parent, help prepare children to deal with struggles in the future.
6. Listen, don't talk. You'll be tempted to start pointing out all the reasons why the situation is "not so bad," but kids don’t function the same way grown-ups do. Logic plays very little part in soothing a disappointed child. Listen intently to what your son tells you about his thoughts and feelings.
7. Congratulate your son when he handles disappointments reasonably. Nothing encourages kids to face and deal with disappointments reasonably as much as moms/dads who display pride over their child's actions. Kids love to hear parents say, "I'm so proud of you for not losing your temper" …or "You did a good job understanding that you couldn't go to the movies with your friends today." Words of support and encouragement each time a youngster makes a decision to deal with a disappointment can really help to turn inappropriate behavior around. Kids seldom tire of hearing that they handled a situation with good judgment. The desire for parental approval and praise is one of the chief motivational forces in a youngster's life.
8. Offer personal experiences. Once your son settles down from the “bad” experience, tell him about a similar personal experience that happened to you. This will show him that he is not alone in his disappointment. You can even point out that, as an adult, you are still disappointed by things that happen to you.
9. Offer perspective. Whatever the situation may be, you can find a way to help your son put it into the proper perspective without ever using the dreaded phrases "It's not so bad..." or "It could be worse."
10. Be patient, then be a little more patient, and then have even more patience as your son figures out how the real world operates.
Key questions to ask your son so that he can brainstorm some ideas on how to resolve the problem himself include:
- Are you going to try again?
- How big is the problem? It feels like a disaster. On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is it?
- How can we make sure that this problem doesn't mess up anything else in your life?
- How long do you want this disappointment to make you feel bad about?
- How long will the disappointment last? A day, a week?
- How upset do you want to be about this now, given that it is going to feel better soon?
- Is there a part of this issue that you can control, change, or improve?
- Is there anything you would’ve done differently?
- What are some alternative things to say to yourself to counter the alarm messages going through your mind?
- What can you do now to make the situation better?
- What do you think went wrong?
- What is the worst part of it for you?
- When will it be time to move on? Often times, the sooner people get going on Plan B, the sooner they start to feel better.
The key is for the youngster with Aspergers or high functioning autism to learn to be able to distinguish between serious disappointments and trivial ones. Disappointments are a part of everyone's daily life. But, your son won't be disappointed in your attempts to help him deal with difficulties if you consider using some of parenting strategies listed above.
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