When Your Child Makes a Mistake

How you react to your child's setbacks can have a surprising effect

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Knowing how to respond when your child makes a mistake or experiences a failure or setback is an important skill for parents to learn. Regardless of whether your child loses a soccer match, is beaten by a sibling or a friend at a board game, gets a bad report card, or has any other kind of setback or disappointment, there will be many times in their life where things do not go their way. How you respond during these moments is important for your child's social and emotional development.

Depending on the situation and circumstances, some parents react to their child's setback by comforting their child. Others may focus on what the child did wrong or worry that their child is not doing well. And in some cases, parents might become angry with their child, or angry with whoever they blame for the setback—a referee, a coach, a teacher, or a judge. No matter your response, it impacts your kids.

How Our Reactions Affect Our Kids 

You may not realize it, but your reactions to your kids' failures can have lasting effects on how they process a setback and move on. Reactions also can influence how resilient and self-confident kids become and how they handle mistakes and failures for the rest of their lives.

Parents' reactions to kids' failures can even determine a child's view of their own intelligence, according to a study published in Psychological Science. 

Researchers at Stanford University found that whether a parent views a child's setbacks and mistakes as a positive thing or a bad thing can shape that child's beliefs about intelligence, and in turn, affect their future. 

"Children's beliefs about intelligence has a huge impact on how well they do," says Kyla Haimovitz, Ph.D., the lead author of the study and a researcher in the Department of Psychology at Stanford University.

The researchers asked 73 parent-child pairs a series of questions related to failure and intelligence. The children were 4th- and 5th-grade students. While the findings showed no link between parents' beliefs about intelligence and what their kids thought about intelligence, there was a link between parents' attitudes toward intelligence and kids' beliefs about intelligence.

Researchers believe it has to do with the message that the parents' reactions are sending to the kids. For instance, parents who reacted with anxiety and worry about a low test grade may be conveying the message to their child that they won't improve because intelligence is fixed.

But parents who focused on what a child can learn from the bad test grade may give their kids the message that intelligence is not fixed, and that they can improve their grades through studying.

How to Convey the Right Message 

There are a number of ways to make sure your child gets the message that failure is not a sign of their intelligence or ability. Here are some important ways to respond the next time your child has a setback.

  • Watch your child's reaction. Take your cue from your child's reaction to the loss. Are they happy because they tried their best? Are they angry with themself for failing? If they're angry or upset with themself or with the loss, try to help them channel that feeling into a desire to try their best the next time.
  • Focus on the future. Instead of talking about the loss, focus on how to do it better the next time. Remind your child that whatever went wrong can be a very useful and educational tool in figuring out what to do or not do in the future.
  • Picture yourself as an observer. Watch how you react to the mistake your child made. Would you think this person was being supportive and giving useful advice? Would you think they were speaking in a warm and relaxed manner? Or would they sound harsh, critical, or negative? Picture yourself being motivating instead of discouraging.
  • Emphasize the process rather than the outcome. Talk about what was fun, what they did and didn't like, and what they think could be done better the next time. Help them channel their energy into strategizing for the future and focus on the fun and satisfaction of learning, rather than winning.
  • Refrain from giving your child pity. When you try to comfort your child, be careful not to give them pity, which can send a harmful message—that they aren't capable. "Instead of saying, 'I'm so sorry you can't do this,' acknowledge what went poorly and focus on finding a solution," says Dr. Haimovitz.
  • Keep the setback in perspective. Be sure to tell your child that this outcome doesn't define who they are and that there are so many things that they are good at. Talk to them about times that you have failed at something before and what you did to change the outcome the next time. Reassure them that mistakes are something all human beings make. The fact that we don't always get it right is one of the fundamental things that makes us all human.
  • Do something fun together. Shore up your child's self-esteem and boost their confidence by doing something that they love and are good at. Taking a break from the problem at hand may help them focus on new strategies and ideas on how to tackle the problem better the next time.
  • Avoid trying to fix their mistake. Jumping in to fix the error yourself is helicopter parenting. Helping means showing them how to find ways to figure out what to do themselves. 
  • Remind them of your unshakable love. Finally, reassure your child that you always have their back and that you'll be there for them to talk to about their feelings and thoughts regarding any mistake they make. Make sure that they know that your love is something they can always count on, no matter what the mistake is, and that they can come and confide in you.

What Kids Can Learn From Failure

As parents, it's very hard to watch kids fail or make mistakes, but learning to step back and allow them to work through issues and sometimes fail in the process is an important part of being a good parent. As hard as it can be, there is a lot that kids can learn by making mistakes.

In fact, allowing kids the freedom to make mistakes helps build resilience and is an essential life experience on the road to raising confident and capable kids. When kids have an opportunity to struggle through different situations and sometimes fail in the process, you allow them to develop and hone important social and emotional skills.

But when kids don't have opportunities to fail or struggle, they often have lower self-esteem and under-developed problem-solving skills. They also tend to be more fearful of failure and are less willing to take risks or try new things.

Conversely, when kids have struggled and overcome adversity, they know that while failure is not an enjoyable experience, it's also not the end of the world. They know how to pick themselves up and try again.

According to researchers, parents have an obligation to teach kids about the importance of failure, including how to react to it and how to learn from it. Making mistakes and failing allows kids to develop the tenacity and self-control they need to interact effectively with the world around them.

A Word From Verywell

As hard as it may be to watch your kids struggle and make mistakes, it's an important experience that every child should have from time to time. Of course this doesn't mean that you never help with homework, offer your child reassurance, or intervene when they are at risk, but you should occasionally allow them the space to make mistakes.

The next time your child is in a challenging situation, take a deep breath and ask yourself if you really need to step in and help them, or is this a situation where you should allow them to figure it out on their own even if it means making mistakes along the way. Allowing your child the freedom to make some age-appropriate choices—even if the risk of failure is high—helps build your child's autonomy and independence while teaching them important life lessons about failure.

2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Haimovitz K, Dweck CS. Parents’ views of failure predict children’s fixed and growth intelligence mind-setsPsychol Sci. 2016;27(6):859-869. doi:10.1177/0956797616639727

  2. Loscalzo J. A celebration of failureCirculation. 2014;129(9):953-955. doi:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.114.009220

By Katherine Lee
Katherine Lee is a parenting writer and a former editor at Parenting and Working Mother magazines.