When Your Child Makes a Mistake

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

Mother and daughter talking

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How do you respond when your child makes a mistake or experiences a failure or setback? When 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, how do you typically react?

Depending on the situation and circumstances, some parents may 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 unfortunate cases, parents might become angry with their child, or angry with whoever they blame for the setback—a bad referee, a bad coach, unfair judging, etc.

How Our Reactions Affect Our Kids 

We may not realize it, but our reactions to our kids' failures can have lasting effects on how they process the setback and move on, how resilient and self-confident they 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 intelligence, according to a study published in the April 26, 2016Ph.D.issue of 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 of participants 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.

Why? 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 he 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 grade through studying.

What Parents Can Do to Convey the Right Message 

What can parents do to make sure their child gets the message that failure is not a sign of their intelligence and ability not measuring up? Here are some important ways to respond the next time your child has a setback:

  1. Watch your child's reaction. Take your cue from your child's reaction to the loss. Is she happy because she tried his best? Is she angry at himself for failing? If she's angry or upset with himself or with the loss, try to help him channel that feeling into a desire to try his best the next time.
  2. 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.
  3. Picture yourself as an observer, watching how you react to the mistake your child made. Would you think this person was being supportive and giving useful advice? Would you think she was speaking in a warm and relaxed manner? Or would she sound harsh, critical, or negative? Picture yourself being motivating instead of discouraging.
  4. Put more emphasis on the process rather than the outcome. Talk about what was fun, what she did and didn't like, and what she thinks could be done better the next time. Help her channel her energy into strategizing for the future and focus on the fun and satisfaction of learning, rather than winning.
  5. Don't give your child pity. When you try to comfort your child, be careful not to give her pity, which can send a harmful message—that she isn'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.
  6. Put the setback in perspective. Be sure to tell your child that this outcome doesn't define who she is and that there are so many things that she is good at. Talk to her about times that you have failed at something before and what you did to change the outcome the next time. Reassure her that mistakes are something all human beings make. It's one of the fundamental things that makes us all human, the fact that we don't always get it right.
  7. Do something fun together. Shore up your child's self-esteem and boost her confidence by doing something that she loves and is good at. Taking a break from the problem at hand may help her focus on new strategies and ideas on how to tackle the problem better the next time.
  8. Don't try to fix his mistake. Jumping in to fix the error yourself is helicopter parenting. Showing him how to find ways to figure out what to do himself is helping. 
  9. Remind her of your unshakable love. Finally, reassure your child that you always have her back and that you'll be there for her to talk to about her feelings and thoughts about any mistake she makes. Make sure that she knows that your love is something she can always count on, no matter what the mistake is, and that she can come and confide in you.
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