How To Help Children Learn From Failure and Mistakes

The next time your child makes a mistake and feels badly, take the opportunity to talk about it using these expert tips

By Kathryn Dorrell

The list of famous individuals who have faced failure before they became wildly successful is a mile long.

A former boss fired Walt Disney, saying he lacked imagination. Oprah Winfrey was given the boot from her first TV gig as a reporter. And J.K. Rowling was a single mom on welfare before she morphed into an internationally beloved billionaire author.

What can we learn from hearing about the failure and mistakes of others?

People, including children and teens, thrive not in spite of their setbacks but because of them, says Dr. Dominique Morisano, a clinical psychologist, lecturer and assistant professor at the University of Toronto.

Our parental instinct is to bubble wrap our children and protect them from emotional pain. Who hasn’t chanted the Taylor Swift mantra, “Shake it off,” when their child’s spirits are deflated after they flunk a test or fail to make the rep team?

Our intentions are well meaning but they backfire because we fail to teach youth crucial life lessons and give them skills that help them navigate the world.

“Young people need to experience and learn to manage the whole range of emotions—joy, hope, sadness and disappointment—and understand they are natural and a normal part of being human,” says Morisano, who is also a faculty member at the Centre for Mindfulness Studies in Toronto.

In learning how to navigate a set back and pick themselves afterward, children and teens learn one of life’s most valuable lessons: How to be resilient.

The next time your child makes a mistake (say they forget about a test, a babysitting gig, or a commitment they made to a friend) and feel badly, grasp the opportunity and talk about it. “Ask them to tell you about the experience and how it made them feel,” advises Morisano. “Listen and then ask them what they would do differently the next time.”

If your son is down because of his biology test results, for instance, an open discussion can help him realize he needs to start studying earlier, or ask for help with concepts he’s struggling to understand. We can model learning from setbacks by sharing our own stories. Tell your kids about a setback you experienced, how you reacted and, crucially, how you are moving forward and learning from the situation.

Morisano adds that we can also let our young people know their sense of self-worth is not defined by their mistakes and failures, or any one aspect of their lives, such as a course or a specific sport, which they aren’t particularly good at.

“Teach your children to see themselves as whole individuals with strengths and weaknesses; to not beat themselves up but instead be kind to themselves when they make a mistake or have a disappointment,” Morisano says.

That’s something all parents can practice, too.


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