Dear Virginia, It feels like our whole family is in mourning. Our daughter failed to get the results to get into university, and she is hugely disappointed. She's always been top in everything and has a great social life and this is her first big setback. She's become extremely depressed and stays in her room and any suggestions we make about trying again next year are, she says, out of the question. We have all reassured her it doesn't matter and that we love her, but she is so cast down. She even refuses to see the doctor. Is there any way we can help her through this time? Yours sincerely, Geraldine

I can well imagine how upset you all must be, having probably taken it for granted that your daughter would sail into some brilliant university and her future career would go perfectly to plan. But things don't go to plan. And it's a shame that you talk about the "whole family" being in mourning. Because surely it's your duty, as someone far more grown-up, to shrug off this minor blip as an example to your daughter of how to behave when a setback comes up and hits you in the face. And, to be quite honest, as your daughter has been so incredibly lucky in her life so far, isn't it better that she should meet her first hurdle now, when she's in the bosom of her family, than later on when she might not have a family around to cheer her up and say that it could happen to anyone and it was just one of those things?

There are three ways of reacting to this. One is to wail and gnash your teeth, and say you love her and made a big drama about it. Another is to tut-tut and ask her to think of others less fortunate than herself, people who don't even get the chance to go to school, let alone university – and a trip to Africa or India might open her eyes a bit to the realities of other people in other countries. But I'd say the best thing is simply to be breezy about it. Behave as if these setbacks happen all the time – which they do. Explain to her that it's not the setback that's the problem, it's how she deals with it. And pooh-pooh the idea of her not taking her re-sits. Don't even consider it, and certainly don't indulge her. Say you've never heard such a stupid idea, and of course she's got to take the exams again, and it'll be fine – which I'm sure it will be if she's as clever as you say.

She's got caught up in the drama of it all. You mustn't get sucked into it, too. Introduce her to other people who failed to get into university the first time, but succeeded the next time. Regale her with how many times you took your driving test (unless, of course, you have been one of those sunny and lucky people who've led a charmed life, which is unlikely.)

If she continues to mope, I think your first response should be, at this stage, irritation rather than any more sympathy. "Get over it" should be your mantra.

Clearly if she slumps into a full-blown depression you'll have to be more sympathetic and perhaps think of medical help, but not at this stage. You haven't tried all the normal remedies yet by any means.

Break the cycle

Your daughter is wrapped in a cycle of negative thoughts, and this is the path to depression. The only way to deal with it is to break the cycle. Do not make her feel pressurised, but get her something interesting to do. She might get a part-time job, but she could also volunteer to help with a charity. You might become involved with a charity yourself and ask her to help. She will then be able to direct her focus outwards. Maybe take her on a short city break somewhere interesting. Encourage her friends to come round.

Also be aware yourself that university is not the sole goal of life. Too many parents invest massive amounts of emotional energy in pressing their children to seek the supposed status of a degree, and they become disappointed when things go wrong. But there are paths through life that do not involve a degree. There is a wide range of other, job-related qualifications that are more suitable to some people that degrees are. So give her time and take away the pressure. She will come round.

Francis Beswick

By email

It's an opportunity

Geraldine's daughter doesn't need a doctor – she needs a kick up the backside! So, her great social life took precedence over her exams and now she's living with the consequences. It's time for some tough love. She either gets a job and contributes to her keep or she sets about those resits. It's fine to be unhappy for a while, then we have to pick ourselves up and start again.

Is there a family friend or relative who could talk through the options with her? Or could you find a careers advisor to help? Would her school, or a respected teacher be able to advise?

My daughter found herself in a similar position. She wouldn't listen to me but she listened to a good friend who persuaded her to re-sit. She got a part-time job, worked hard and gained much better grades the second time round. This month she starts a prestigious course at an excellent university. She wouldn't have got a place there without the re-sits. She didn't see at the time how necessary it was but of course is now very glad she re-sat.

The way in which Geraldine's daughter turns this situation round to her advantage will demonstrate a more mature outlook, which will pay dividends in future. Celia Howells

By email

Show her real woes

Buy her a copy of The Great War for Civilisation by Robert Fisk and insist she reads the section on Algeria. Show her footage of the victims of the famine in Somalia and make sure she watches it. Then she might realise how selfish and ridiculous she's being. "She's always been top in everything and has a great social life": lucky, lucky girl. Don't take her to see a doctor. Don't indulge her.

Mark Hunt

By email

Next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia,

I have osteoarthritis in several joints including knees and feet. I now walk with a stick and progress is slow. I can cope – but it's other people's attitudes that are hard to bear. I've just come back from a weekend away, which included a theatre trip for eight of us. I nearly lost my temper because the others fussed around me so much, asking "Are you all right?" 20 times during the evening. My nearest and dearest don't do this, it's not-so-close friends, strangers and assistants in my local supermarket. It's very clear that able-bodied people find me a problem and feel responsible for me. I resent their offloading their anxiety on to me by demanding reassurance. Is there any way I can get them to stop pestering me without just being rude? Yours sincerely, Kate

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