Even though kids are a work-in-progress, their current knowledge, skills, values, attitudes and motivation can lead to more learning and achievement. They may also bring a unique set of core personal strengths, such as patience, self-confidence, persistence, and many others. Such strengths can make them resilient, allowing them to continue giving their best effort in spite of inevitable difficulties. Faced with a setback, kids who believe in themselves and want to succeed eventually recover and continue striving.

On the other hand, a child might be so disheartened that they give up. A disappointment, such as a betrayal by a friend, an unkind remark, or a failure in class, can feel so devastating that the child “loses heart.” The negatives can seem so overwhelming that they no longer appreciate what’s possible, become unsure of themselves, and feel that continuing to strive is not worth the effort.

This is what we call discouragement.

When self-encouragement isn’t taking hold, you can help. Most people have the idea that offering encouragement is an instinctive act, that if you have a good heart, it comes naturally. But offering encouragement is actually a special skill, and few parents are practiced in it. What many people think of as encouragement can have the opposite effect.

The classic form of mistaken encouragement is false assurance. “Everything is going to be all right.” Has anyone ever said that to you? Even though they may have offered it with a kind spirit, statements like this are empty if they have no basis.

Another way parents sometimes try to encourage is to sugar-coat reality. They may say, “This isn’t so bad.” Downplaying an unpleasant situation is a common coping mechanism. But a child who’s been slammed by adversity knows that what’s bothering them really is this bad, and saying that it isn’t doesn’t help.

A parent might even take the tough love approach, saying something like, “Come on, stuff happens. Get over it.” When this works, it’s usually with particularly strong kids who are already encouraging themselves.

Discouragement happens when an adverse situation causes someone to be so focused on their pain and the negatives that they’re no longer acknowledging the positives of their situation—even though the upsides are real and valid. For encouragement to work, the key is to be reality-based. Every situation is a mixture of negative and positive elements: challenges and opportunities; problems and solutions; advantages and disadvantages; strengths and weaknesses; mistakes and lessons learned.

The first step is to notice when something has happened to cause your child to feel discouraged. Your task will be to help restore a balanced perspective—one that reminds your child about the good in a bad situation. You can use these elements of encouragement in sequence, in any order, or in isolation:

  • Listen with empathy to understand
  • Affirm your child’s strengths
  • Restore perspective
  • Offer support

Listen with empathy to understand. Listening is first on this list because when you listen to understand, you learn what happened and what your child is feeling. Even though you might be tempted to rescue them, listening is not about telling them what they should be thinking, feeling and doing. By listening, I mean focusing your attention, sensing their feelings, listening for the meaning, and checking what you hear. If you’re listening well, your discouraged child may start “venting.” You might hear frustration and anger. This is a good sign. When someone expresses negative feelings, it’s because they need to. They might even feel relieved afterward. Sometimes, this is all a kid needs to “snap out of it.”

Affirm your child’s strengths. Nobody is perfect; everyone is a unique blend of strengths and weaknesses. The idea is to remind your child of their strengths. When things go wrong, people sometimes feel guilt and blame themselves. They may feel inadequate. They may experience a blow to their self-esteem and self-confidence. They can temporarily lose sight of who they are and what they’re capable of. When a child focuses on their shortcomings, they need to be reminded of their strengths. They will probably be focused on the failure at hand, not past achievements; so it can help to remind them that they’ve succeeded before in equally tough or even tougher situations.

Restore perspective. In addition to an unbalanced view of themselves, a discouraged child may also be focused on the negatives in their situation. That’s natural—these are the issues that are causing distress. To restore a balanced, realistic perspective, acknowledge the negatives, but also remind your child that their situation may not be all negative. While some situations may not have an much of an upside, often there are advantages, potentials, opportunities, and resources to consider. If so, pointing out these positives can be helpful, because they’re real, too.

Offer support. When your child has been discouraged by difficulty or failure, they may wonder what you think of them. Do you still love them? Do you still believe in them? In light of current setbacks, will you think poorly of them? Now is the time to reassure them that you’re still very much in their corner.

This approach to offering encouragement is taken from Chapter 8 of Connect with Your Kid: Mastering the Top 10 Parent-Child Communication Skills. The book includes more about encouragement, as well as chapters for nine other essential communication skills.