Social Skills: Reacting to Setbacks



When things go wrong, some children and adolescents have a hard time recovering and moving on with their day. Some react very strongly, getting upset and causing others to feel uncomfortable. This handout was developed to help these children and adolescents learn how to recognize their difficulties and respond in a more effective manner.  


Problems come in different sizes.

Our goal is for the size of our reaction to match the size of the problem.


Small problems

These are issues that are brief, minor everyday occurrences like losing a game, making a mistake, wearing something you dislike, or being paired with a classmate you don’t like. These types of things may be annoying, they may make you unhappy, or they may be irritating. When a small problem occurs, it is not appropriate to have a tantrum, yell at others, destroy things, or say hurtful things to others. You should keep negative thoughts to yourself and decide to remain calm, rather than becoming upset.  


Medium Problems

These are issues you may need some help with, like losing your keys, someone being mean to you, or having a minor injury. When there is a medium problem, people often need help from others to intervene or help the situation. Emotionally, they may feel stressed, sad, upset, or angry, but this should improve once the problem is resolved. 


Big problems

These are issues that you need immediate help with, like going to the hospital, being in a car accident, or your house burning down. People with big problems are expected to feel overwhelmed and to need help from others for a while, maybe days, weeks, or months. People with big problems may be angry, they may cry, and they may feel very high levels of stress and upsetting feelings.



It’s okay to feel bothered by setbacks but it’s not okay to overreact. When you experience a setback, take a moment to figure out whether it’s a small problem, medium problem, or big problem. Ask yourself, “Does the size of my reaction match the size of my problem?” Read this to yourself:

“When the size of my reaction doesn’t match the size of the problem,

it causes others to have uncomfortable thoughts about me.

That means they may not want to be around me next time.

When the size of my reaction matches the size of my problem,

this keeps people around me feeling calm and feeling good about being with me.”


Practice categorizing the things that go wrong throughout the day into groups of small problems, medium problems, and big problems. The better you get at recognizing the size of your problems, the better you will be at responding appropriately.


You can improve your ability to react to setbacks by practicing stress/anger relief strategies such as progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, positive affirmations, seeking help from someone, and taking a break. 



If you're interested in working on this skill directly, or any other social skill or coping skill, 

contact us for an appointment today!