Being cut from a team, missing out on a coveted leadership position, or receiving a college rejection letter are, unfortunately, familiar student experiences that remind us: Rejection hurts. Even as adults, we know that missing out on an opportunity for promotion or feeling excluded by peers stings. We know it can be very challenging to help our children digest and respond to rejection. Still, because the experience of rejection is inevitable, one of our most important tasks as parents is to help our children prepare for, understand, and respond when being told “no.”
How a boy experiences “no” and how best to respond in these moments often depends on the context. Sometimes, setbacks are temporary; a sixth-grader who takes a risk and runs for homeroom rep but does not get elected, for example, still has two years to develop his skills and reach his goal. Other times, the rejection is final; when a rising senior does not earn the leadership role he hoped to have, he does not have the same opportunity the next year. As parents, one of our most important roles is helping children respond to hearing “no,” develop the resilience to face temporary setbacks, and gain the perspective to view major and final rejections as part of the growth that shapes future success.
Setting Boundaries - Teaching No
For most parents of young children, the word “no” is commonplace and seemingly uttered hundreds of times a day. From “No, you can’t grab that toy from your sister’s hands,” to “No, it is not acceptable to scream in the library,” the word “no” for toddlers is synonymous with “You can’t do what you want to do!” As parents, we know the word “no” is critical for children to hear for many reasons, and it is our responsibility to thoughtfully make use of the word. Primarily, parents must teach their children about rules. By clearly articulating “no,” the child will come to learn the rules, such as grabbing things from people is rude and libraries are quiet zones. Rules are one way that we stay safe and allow others to remain safe, too. There will be rules to follow in school, social contexts, and society.
So then, how does a parent discipline a boy who enjoys testing the limits and is desperately trying to gain independence without saying “no”? Although there is no full-proof antidote to the sometimes animated after-effects of the word “no,” there are a few tactics a parent can use.
- Keep it simple and use as few words as necessary. The less complicated the request, the easier it will be for your son to understand. Clear is kind!
- Reframe a request from a negative into a positive. Rather than saying, “Johnny, stop fighting with your brother,” instead say “Johnny, why don’t you get out the crayons so that you and your brother can draw me a picture? I would love that!”
- Inform your son of the day’s schedule. When a child is able to forecast a situation, he feels more in control and is better able to adapt.
- Stop and think if there is a better way to say “no,” such as “not right now,” or “maybe in a few minutes,” or “thank you for sharing the toy with your sister, you can have it to yourself later this afternoon.” If “no” is the only word that your son hears, he may find it a challenge to respond to it as the stakes get higher.
- Finally, praise and reward your son when he does behave appropriately upon his response to the word “no” or the message it entails.
Another reason the word “no” is profoundly important to a child is much more complex and relies on the intricate social interactions of hearing the word and responding to the word authentically and appropriately. This is often the hard part for both parent and child. The word “no” is a lesson in setting boundaries, empathy, and resilience. Not only does setting clear and firm boundaries help a child learn to better adapt, but it teaches him to be in tune with emotions. The more aware your child is of his emotions, the better he can clearly articulate his feelings and ask for what he needs.
Being a supportive parent who can model healthy responsive behaviors for him in stressful times is crucial to the child’s development of emotional regulation. This is when empathy is learned. “How do you think your sister felt when you grabbed her toy away?” or “I wonder how the other children in the library felt when their story was interrupted?” can help your child understand that his actions impact himself and others. This is not easy, and social skill building takes much practice. But this reframing of the word “no” can allow your son to gain insight into his emotional state and then explore the flexibility to respond in a more thoughtful and empathetic way. Getting comfortable with hearing and saying the word “no” will be important as your son progresses through school, makes friends and is involved with more complex social situations.
Responding to Short-Term No
As boys develop, and especially as they approach and enter adolescence, an important transition occurs: “No” becomes a judgment from the world beyond home. Teachers and other students determine leadership roles at school, coaches choose the players who make the team, and judges determine the winners of a debate round. Receiving feedback, even when it is disappointing, from a widening array of sources is an important experience, especially as it offers young people opportunities to further develop resilience and to identify opportunities to grow.
Resilience is learned over time. It is a process driven by danger, difficulty, and misfortune. The more a boy can experience small, daily misfortunes and respond to them in healthy ways, the more resilient he will become. Hearing the word “no” in low-stakes situations is one way we can support our boys for when the pain of rejection has bigger, more impactful repercussions.
Harvard’s National Scientific Council, through its acclaimed Center on the Developing Child, researched and found a direct correlation between supportive relationships and early skill-building in young children during moments of adversity and high stress. They state that, “resilience is shaped by the accumulation of experiences—both good and bad—and the continuing development of adaptive coping skills that are attuned to those experiences. The brain and other biological systems are most adaptable early in life, and the development that occurs in the earliest years lays the foundation for a wide range of resilient behaviors”.
In our football program at University School, we provide feedback to our student-athletes in four key categories: tactical understanding, technical skill, psychological mindset, and physical readiness. We provide specific feedback in each area through a series of ratings, and this means celebrating elite behavior and performance while also identifying and addressing examples when a student’s behavior and performance is sub-standard. When we meet to discuss these evaluations, we have the advantage of looking forward; we are meeting after a season with an eye toward the next one, and this helps both coaches and players view the feedback as helpful to the process of developing a plan for development.
Similarly, the football players we coach complete a questionnaire after every game. While always helpful, the surveys are most important after a loss. The questions are straightforward: What did you and your unit do well? What do you and your unit need to improve? How can you contribute to achieving this improvement? And, how can your teammates and coaches help you and your unit make this improvement? Such an approach is applicable beyond athletics. By consistently engaging young people in the process of identifying strengths, recognizing opportunities for growth, and developing plans to achieve this growth, we are providing the scaffolding that supports a meaningful growth mindset.
Helping a boy to view a setback as feedback is an important step to helping him effectively respond to disappointment. In the face of such setbacks, adults have the opportunity to help young people identify the information that matters, and the information that matters is not the word, “no.” Rather, what matters is the reason for “no.”
Redirecting from Long-Term No
While hearing “no” often represents an opportunity to improve skills and recommit to the hard work that may earn a “yes” in the future, sometimes, rejection is final. When a junior experiences being cut from the basketball team or when a senior receives a rejection letter from his first-choice college, he is losing the ability to achieve a long-held objective, and the finality of this experience poses substantial challenges. Indeed, when a boy experiences such high-stakes rejection, he may question whether his work was worthwhile, whether his efforts were sufficient, and whether he is capable of attaining positive results. As parents, it is important to address these questions as we help young people reflect on and grow from life’s inevitable setbacks.
First, it is important to recognize and appreciate the emotions of these moments. Loss and rejection are painful, and offering support and space to process this pain is the first step to helping a boy move forward. Acknowledging these feelings is a crucial step toward gaining a new perspective.
In such moments, it is normal for a boy to question the time and effort invested in a process that does not yield the desired result, but parents can be most helpful when they patiently reframe the discussion. A veteran teacher and coach used to talk about “the inherent value of the experience.” This concept is very helpful when speaking to boys who are deeply frustrated by the results of their efforts. Once a boy has had the opportunity to calm down from the initial emotions surrounding the negative result, it is important to help him reflect on his experience of the process.
Young men often respond much more favorably when the conversation is informal, side-by-side (as opposed to face-to-face), and time-bound; so a short car ride is a great time to ask questions. What did you like about your preparation or efforts? How did you grow during the process? How might you do things differently in a similar situation moving forward?
In these moments we can help boys consider how a result that appears to be a final setback fits into his long-term growth. When they experience high-stakes rejection, the importance of resilience is greater than ever; in these instances, our task is to help achieve the perspective necessary to pursue new objectives while maintaining the passion and confidence necessary for success. Indeed, life has a natural way of forcing us to grow. Achieving perspective often begins by framing the disappointment in terms of one’s overall goals. Missing out on a final opportunity to make the team, play a lead in the musical, or gain admission to a “reach” college hurts because of a boy’s sense of the person he is hoping to become. Understanding why a setback hurts is valuable in determining the next steps in directing one’s energies and developing one’s skills.
Most of us can probably think back to how a setback helped clarify our sense of purpose, and we can appreciate how this understanding has helped us to identify new goals and pursue them effectively. When a young person experiences these challenging moments, our task is to help him redirect his efforts and commit himself to his new course.
No matter how much life experience one has, rejection hurts. As adults, though, we understand that framing, understanding, and responding to rejection are essential steps toward growth. As parents, we can help the children in our lives learn to embrace this process, and by doing so, we prepare them for a lifetime of growth.
13., N. S.-B. (2015). developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/.Retrieved from Developing Harvard Child.edu: http://www.developingchild.harvard.edu
Other Resources for Parents:
- Getting to Yes, Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In - Roger Fisher and William Ury
- Getting Past No, Negotiating Your Way From Confrontation to Cooperation - William Ury