Obstacle or Opportunity — Turn Setbacks into Celebrations

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Welcome to part 4 (of 6) in the Brain Stages Emotional Quotient Series.

You can click the following links if you missed Part 1: 6 Ways to Help Kids Develop Empathy, Part 2: 5 Ways to Help Kids Become Grateful and Generous, or Part 3 The Art of Listening: 3 Steps to Transform Relationships.

The prevailing idea used to be that intelligence was fixed—success in life largely depended on the talents and tendencies we were supposedly born with.

There have always been those who knew the power of attitude, though. In the 1800s, Henry Ford used to say, “If you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.

Then Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck came along a decade ago with her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success and turned the fixed intelligence idea on its head.

Dweck defines a “fixed mindset” as one stuck in the belief that we can’t take meaningful steps to change our circumstances, whereas a “growth mindset” views failures and obstacles as pathways to learning and new possibilities.

In recent years, all kinds of studies have also found that our brains are “plastic”—that is, they’re malleable. Our brains develop new neural pathways as we practice skills that interest us and work toward mastery.

It turns out the cheesy phrase “Life is attitude” has serious validity.

In fact, a recent study at Stanford University found that a positive attitude “increased engagement of the hippocampal learning-memory system” and may be the reason positive kids tend to be more successful than negative ones. People who look for positives in difficult situations even tend to live longer.

Cozy mystery author Claire Fadden used to say with a shrug, “Obstacle or Opportunity,” whenever anyone in our close-knit writers’ group would experience something unpleasant or unfortunate.

It’s funny. Whenever she said that, at first, I would feel annoyed. But with a little contemplation, I’d see how a given negative experience could become an opportunity to get me closer to my goals.

I brought this idea to my kids. One day, I got a speeding ticket trying to get my daughters to their swimming lessons on time. After the police officer got back into his car, my oldest said, “Mom, are you okay?” She must have seen my face in the rear-view mirror.

Choking back tears, I said, “Obstacle or opportunity.”

“What does that mean?” my younger daughter’s chipmunk voice chirped from the booster seat over my shoulder.

“Well, my friend Claire always says to look for an opportunity—something good—that can come out of anything bad that happens.”

“But you got a ticket,” my older daughter reminded me. “You’re gonna have to pay a lot of money, right?”

“Yeah, and not only the fine for speeding. I’ll have to pay for traffic school so daddy’s and my car insurance won’t go up.”

“I don’t see anything good, Mommy,” my little one said.

As I pulled away from the curb, I realized this lousy experience had created an opportunity—to teach my children something valuable.

“Getting pulled over was a good reminder that driving too fast is a bad idea, even when you’re in a hurry. Now we’ll be later than we would have been if I had driven within the speed limit. Besides, traffic laws are for our safety. We’re lucky I just got a ticket, and we didn’t get into an accident.” At a red light, I glanced at the mirror, at my precious daughters in the back seat and caught my older child’s thoughtful gaze.

“So, I guess getting a ticket wasn’t totally terrible,” she said, “just mostly terrible.”

“Yeah,” my little one said. “I’m glad we didn’t crash.”

After that, I got reminders from the girls if I got a little heavy-footed on the gas pedal when were running late. And with a few more examples of me talking them through finding something good in my own negative experiences, they began to look for opportunities to learn, grow, or move forward when they ran into obstacles.

5 Ways to Help Kids Find Opportunities in Obstacles and Turn Setbacks into Celebrations


1. Start with your own experience—something bad that happens to you—and model for your children how to find a positive lesson or idea that will help you in the future.

Full disclosure: I learned the hard way that I couldn’t start out with the “Obstacle or Opportunity” concept using my kids’ experiences. My older daughter had shared an unpleasant event that happened at school, and when I tried to point out something positive that she could take away from the situation, she felt unsupported. In short, she got mad and shut down.

Once I started modeling finding learning opportunities in the unpleasant things I experienced, the girls began to see the advantage of looking for a positive take-away when bad things happened to them.

2. Explain that failures, setbacks, and disappointments often turn into good things, especially when we look for positive take-aways that can come from them.

When we do something that doesn’t work, for whatever reason, we can look at unsuccessful tries as a step to getting closer to what we want—or as a springboard to something else. An embarrassing situation can give us empathy by teaching us how to treat someone else in a similar circumstance.

Mistakes that Worked: 40 Familiar Inventions & How They Came to Be by Charlotte Jones and John O’Brian is a good book for kids to read to illustrate the idea that we learn from setbacks and good things often come out of them.


Sometimes You Win — Sometimes You Learn, For Kids! by John C. Maxwell is a good picture book for kids who have difficulty with losing at games.




3. Listen first and acknowledge your child’s feelings. When your child comes to you with a negative experience that happened with a friend, classmate, teammate, or whomever, do your best not to interrupt and try to “fix it”. Let her tell you the whole story before you say a word.

Once your child has finished, acknowledge how she feels. Something like:

“It sounds like wearing your sparkly pink shoes at PE didn’t work very well and you got embarrassed. I’m so sorry.” (Be generous with the hugs and head stroking.)

Then gently offer a positive kernel that might be used to her advantage.

“Now that we know PE in wobbly shoes doesn’t work, maybe you can put your sports shoes in you backpack when you don’t wear them to school, and you can change into them before PE. What do you think?”

4. Ask your child questions to help him find his own “opportunities” in a failed project or any other disappointment. After your child has had some practice with your modeling finding opportunities in your own mishaps and then you offering suggestions for what he might be able to learn from his difficulties, coach him to find his own positive take-aways from situations.

For example: Your son comes home with tears in his eyes and tells you his team got mad at him when he didn’t catch the kickball and make the last out before the recess bell rang. You acknowledge how lousy that must have felt and how sad it is that those kids didn’t show better sportsmanship. Then you ask:

How do you feel about those kids right now?

Now that you know how bad that kind of stuff makes people feel, if they do that to someone else in your class, what could you say to them?

This terrible experience was definitely an obstacle, right?

Can you think of an opportunity that can come from that rotten recess—something that you can take away to give you an advantage in the future?

5. Make it a game to say “Obstacle or Opportunity” to yourself when something less than stellar happens to you. Your children will likely pick up the habit to remind you as well as their siblings and themselves to find the opportunity in an unpleasant situation. Your home will become one of “growth mindset” where anything and everything is possible!

How we think about things, positive or negative, has a huge impact on our success, relationships, health, and happiness. Obstacles are inevitable. Imagine your children’s advantage in life if you give them a “growth mindset” to see opportunity in every circumstance!

PATRICIA WILKINSON – mother of two, taught grades kindergarten through sixth for 23 years, in both public and private schools. She earned a BA in recreation from California State University, Long Beach, and did graduate work at California State Universities, Los Angeles and Chico, to earn a Clear Multiple-Subject Teaching Credential and Language Development Specialist certificate from the State of California. Today, Trish facilitates life-changing workshops for parents and teachers. It’s amazing what can happen when years of creativity and practical experience merge with thousands of hours of brain research. She lives in Bend, Oregon, with her awesome husband, Chuck, and their rambunctious golden retriever, Alice. Visit her at http://thebrainstages.com

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