I was 10 and in fifth grade. While I was not bullied or ostracized, I was definitely not popular as my creativity pushed me to the boundaries of “weird” and my perfectionism firmly placed me in the category of “perfectionist”.
So when I sat in the office of some sort of health care professional, I remember audibly gawking at his recommendation that my high levels of anxiety and perfectionism might actually be helped by doing an entire math assignment wrong. That maybe my own fear of failure would magically be cured if I intentionally failed. This absurd notion only fueled me to not see red marks and I think also added to the fire that was anxiety from not understanding how to deal with disappointment.
My middle school history teacher had a sign that boldly declared “failure is not fatal” and of course every teacher loves to point out Thomas Edison and his thousand failures that led him to success. But, I personally really struggled with finding truth in these platitudes, nor did I find comfort or help with coping when I experienced disappointment.
But what if someone would have not just declared these thing, but actually helped coach me through the process of failing?
Helping our children cope with failure and shift their thinking to a growth mindset instead of the idea that they somehow fell short is important for to emphasize from an early age instead of having to cope with it in adulthood for the first time. I want my own children to be people that see failure as a gift and a positive learning process, not because they were told some phrase that somehow magically transformed their thinking, but because they were given skills and tools to help them genuinely grow from negative experiences.
What does it mean to embrace failure?
No one is perfect. That’s the first lesson that we need to teach our children. The second is that our mistakes are just part of life.
Children must understand that if we do not let the failures defeat us, then there is no need to worry about them rather they can be used as a part of the journey. This is a primary reason why it’s important to practice goal-setting as a family and with your children.
This models for our kids that all paths to the goal are never a simple straight line but there is one stepping stone after another to reach achievement. Accomplishing goals takes effort, adaptation, problem-solving skills, and a positive frame of mind — all of which require embracing failure as a gift instead of feeling set back by it.
How does resilience lead to success?
As children grow up, they seem to be hard-wired to focus on the negative aspects of their lives; however, we can teach them how to be resilient and see the good in every situation. It trains their mindset in the situations but also helps them overcome failure by helping them think through, step-by-step what happened.
We want our children to see success as something we all go through and a process and not something instant.
Even finding success the first time they try usually requires work. And we want to focus on the work put in versus the output — this is what creates resilience and models for our kids that mistakes are ok and to stumble along the way is normal.
They will learn the importance of failure and how it leads them to success in life by making mistakes and not giving up no matter what happens. This way, our children will be ready for any challenge that comes their way.
How can I help my child overcome disappointment and a fear of failure
Let them fail instead of making everything perfect
In any given circumstance it is important to ask ourselves as parents “Is there greater risk or reward in letting my child fail?”
We have to assess this in the moment.
Maybe the risk is getting injured in a severe way, and the reward would otherwise be small. That’s definitely cause to step in and talk through it to avoid disaster. However, if a child forgets to take something with them on a trip (say the right number of underwear), then the reward of teaching them from the situation outweighs any risk associated.
Is there greater risk or reward in letting my child fail?
Raising our kids means helping them develop grit. It is giving them permission to fail even when they think it might negatively impact them. According to Thomas R. Hoerr in a recent study on fostering grit, he states:
Grit gives us resilience. It not only keeps us focused on a task but also enables us to persevere when we fail. The self-monitoring and emotional control that grit provides is an important component of our executive functioning.
It takes courage and strength of character to be willing to do something, not knowing if it will turn out. As parents, if we give our children safe places to fail them we develop that character to bounce back and in essence learn the art of “failing forward”.
When we problem solve for our kids instead of letting them fail, we’re in essence teaching them that life will be without barriers and obstacles — but that could not be further from the truth!
How showing a child empathy in their disappointment or failure builds growth mindset
It’s important for parents not only to show our children love but also to help them see what they are capable of achieving.
When they feel loved and encouraged even in their failures, children are more likely to have a growth mindset which means they believe that their efforts will pay off in the end and with practice and patience they will make progress beyond their first attempt.
In a sports event like a soccer game, building them up by highlighting the moments that were successful helps them to not feel disappointed in themselves, but in the outcome. In fact, in this instance, a loss can happen even at peak performance.
Personally, my oldest child is a hard worker. However it’s easy for her to get distracted whether it’s doing a chore or finishing her homework. We always focus on the things she did great and how she excelled. Then I ask her if she wants feedback. This teaches her that feedback is valuable and that I also value her emotions when she knows that maybe she didn’t do a job quite right.
Empathy emphasizes the learning process without focusing on the failure or disappointment.
Use teachable moments to help them learn to think forward!
All kinds of struggles help build resilience. In test taking or assignments, children have to see the opportunity to either change the variables pre-test like getting better sleep, studying more, or even taking better notes can improve their success.
However, it can also be an opportunity to teach our children that asking for help is not a sign of weakness nor is it a failure. It’s learning from mistakes, it’s gathering more information, and it’s utilizing the people and tools available to be even better.
Our children must learn to deal with problems, obstacles, and set-backs.
– Kara Carrero
Helping your child cope with disappointment from self-imposed high expectations
As adults we know that the idea of a “god mistake” means that we took the crucial step of making a failure a learning opportunity. However, converting that to something mean full for our children is harder because they typically only see in black and white without a lot of a gray areas.
How to help your child cope with failure
Helping your child cope with failure requires understanding a few underlying clues as to why they may feel sadness:
- What was your child hoping would happen?
- Why didn’t it happen?
- Why was a perfect outcome so important? Was it a stepping stone to something else?
- Was it in your child’s control or out of their control?
All of these questions can help parents guide the conversation more meaningfully. The failure that was in a child’s control teaches consequences, but the one outside of their control teaches flexibility and self-growth rather than self-pity.
Show your child the Learning Pit Metaphor
We can help our kids develop their prefrontal cortex and decision making skills to have a Larger Brain Response instead of reacting to a situation in uncertainty. Using the Learning Pit idea, we can demonstrate this for children to show them they can take a moment of frustration and turn it around — in essence it gives them permission to fail because they will train themselves to see a bigger picture.
In the metaphor, they start out thinking they can’t do it, maybe they even fail. Then they learn from being in the pit and start climbing, seeing they can do it and they can accomplish it and there IS a way out!
This is a necessary component of success and a more mindful approach to addressing failure and disappointment.
What do you say when a child makes a mistake?
Speaking from experience in my own childhood, fostering a strong sense of self and positive self esteem in a motivated child is important. But it can also be hard. The moments I succeeded were triumphant but when I didn’t receive the grade I wanted on a spelling test (I was terrible at spelling) or on my report cards, it was easy to devolve instead of letting it motivate me further.
The more we listen to our kids the more we can hear cues of how to manage their expectations. This could be anything from knowing that they could feel like a failure just based on the gifts they receive if it doesn’t match what’s in their head to the things that you know they have worked hard on like a project but may not measure up.
The first thing we can always do is ask them “Was it a good mistake?” Or “Could any good come from this disappointment?”
This does a few things:
- Empathizes with them and identifies it as not going how our child intended.
- Asks our kids to shift their perspective and look at all sides of the situation.
- Identifies it as a mistake or disappointment so that over time, we can point back to how they learned to overcome.
Download printable posters to help your child or classroom students discover “good mistakes”
Reframing negativity can be a simple key to growth mindset in children and the key to help them see the possibilities in their current circumstances. Click the image below to get a free download sent to your inbox.
Kara is an author and advocate for positive, grace-filled parenting. She is homeschooler to her 5 children living on a farm in New England. She believes in creative educational approaches to help kids dive deeper into a rich learning experience and has her degree in Secondary Education & Adolescent Childhood Development. She is passionate about connecting with and helping other parents on their journey to raise awesome kids!