Resilience has been defined as the “process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, and even significant sources of stress. . . .” (Southwick & Charney, 2012). Individuals who are resilient tend to do the following:

  • Think about their life with realistic optimism
  • Face their fears
  • Take responsibility for their own emotional well-being
  • Focus on how they can improve and grow as a result of adversity
  • Seek and accept social support
  • Engage in active problem solving
  • Look for meaning in the midst of adversity, including spiritual and religious meaning
  • Seek out and imitate sturdy role models
  • Identify and use their core values and beliefs to guide their decisions
  • Maintain good physical health and well-being

College students will inevitably face setbacks and disappointments. They may experience difficulties learning and performing well academically, suffer the loss of a romantic partner, be rejected from graduate schools or jobs, or be passed over for an important leadership position. Students who have been high achievers in high school may not initially realize the amount of time and effort it will take to maintain this level of performance in college. In some cases, students who receive negative feedback about their academic performance or interpersonal skills might respond by avoiding a class or a social situation because they haven’t yet learned how to tolerate negative emotions or to use critical feedback to improve. Unfortunately, avoidance typically increases anxious feelings and prevents new positive behaviors from developing.

Parents can help college students bounce back from disappointment by helping them develop what psychologist Carol Dweck has called a “growth mindset.” Individuals with a growth mindset think about disappointments and failures as opportunities to learn and grow, and many studies have found that young people who are praised for persevering and seeking challenges end up surpassing others who focus on how talented or intelligent they are. When we praise students for how smart and gifted they are, we may inadvertently be sending a message that these abilities are fixed and unchangeable. Students with a fixed mindset may avoid classes and experiences that don’t come easily to them to preserve their identity as smart or talented rather than thinking of their ability as something that needs to be nurtured and challenged.

When (not if!) your son or daughter faces disappointment, help them to learn from the experience by thinking about whether they would have approached the situation differently. As Carol Dweck suggests, encourage them to use the phrase, “I’m not where I want to be yet.” If they are upset or angry, listen without judging and reassure them that such feelings are normal – but also suggest that they focus on an action they can take to start bouncing back from the disappointing event. You can also set a positive example by sharing a story about ways you found to be resilient after a disappointment or setback.

Watch Dr. Carol Dweck’s TED talk.


Karen Forbes, Ph.D.
Director, Counseling Center