The nerve-wracking events transpire throughout the school year across the country: cheerleading and basketball tryouts, orchestra auditions and play readings.
Some lucky students will find their name posted on the wall, highlighted on a team, emailed to them in a congratulatory letter.
But others will inevitably be rejected, encouraged to try again next year.
And while rejection stings at any age, it’s important that children learn how to deal with it now, as this will teach them important coping skills and will build their resilience, said Mitchell Prinstein, University of North Carolina director of clinical psychology and author of “Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World.”
Seven-year-old Haley Ruthman is already familiar with rejection. The perky, bubbly Chicagoan has been to a dozen auditions for commercials and modeling gigs over the past year, and she’s landed three jobs, which is impressive but still sting-worthy.
So she’s built up some pretty impressive resilience. In fact, she barely cares if she’s rejected.
“I’m fine with it because I understand that there’s a lot of people, and it doesn’t matter if I didn’t get it or not,” Haley said, speaking of her auditions like a pro. “It’s not that they don’t like you, but they thought that the person has the personality that they want.”
While Haley handles rejection well, each kid is different — and you can usually figure out how children will manage when they’re just a few months old.
If your infant turned to his thumb or pacifier when he was rejected in the middle of the night, then your child is likely naturally good at figuring out how to self-soothe when something goes wrong, said Elizabeth McIngvale, assistant psychology professor of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine.
But skilled or not, every child will face rejection.
“That’s a fact of life,” said Michele Borba, parenting expert and author of 22 parenting and educational books, most recently “UnSelfie.” “One of the best things you can do is to try to ease the pain.”
McIngvale suggested teaching children how to deal with rejection before it happens on a serious level, so that when they really need to self-soothe, they can pull out their tools — even if they appear to be good at it without learned skills.
“When you’re feeling vulnerable, it’s hard to tap in and use those skills,” McIngvale said. “It happens for all of us; it’s hard to think of things rationally when you get rejected.”
Breathing exercises can help some children, McIngvale said.
Have your child place one hand on his stomach and one on his chest. Focus on taking deep belly breaths instead of chest breaths until his body is calm, McIngvale said.
Other kids will handle rejection better if they can work it out via exercise (the same way adults need to take a long run to sort out their feelings), McIngvale said.
Some children can calm down by holding an ice cube in their hands, directing their thoughts to the sensations that they’re feeling.
It’s also important to role-play, so your child can practice getting rejected, Borba said.
You can do this by playing board games without setting them up so your child wins, she says.
And when he loses, shake hands and figure out when you’re going to play again.
“For an older child, show him ‘American Idol’ or a baseball game, and point out the person who loses gracefully,” Borba said. “He must have spent years practicing, but he’s going there and being a good sport — he’s shaking hands.”
Once the rejection happens for real, it’s important to follow three steps, Prinstein said.
First, explain the limits of rejection. For example, if your child isn’t picked for a part in a play, it likely won’t affect his grades, how much his teacher cares about him or how proud you are of him.
Next, teach your child how to interpret rejection.
“Research shows that it is not the negative experience as much as it is how we think about the experience that has potentially damaging effects on us psychologically,” Prinstein said.
So you can teach your child to think more positively about the experience, as 7-year-old Haley has: in reality, all but one person typically is rejected in an audition, Prinstein said.
Finally, let your child know that it’s OK to feel sad or angry. Explain that these reactions are normal.
“Then be sure they are not taking rejection too personally,” Prinstein said. “Most outcomes are based on a wide range of factors, and it’s important to help kids generate a list of what all those other factors may be, to help make explicit that their own perceived deficits may have only been a piece of the larger puzzle.”
And perhaps next time, his piece will fit.