Managing failure and disappointment in kids and teens

17 Jul 2020
These are the notes for the seminar Rachel gave at United Breaks Out on Saturday 1st August 2020.

As we break out of lockdown, we will all be re-engaging with challenges, finding our new purposes in this season, re-establishing relationships, and part of that will be hitting failure and disappointment along the way. And as we send our kids back out, it will be true for them too.  But we can prep for that now, thinking about how to help them handle it emotionally and find God in the midst of it all. 

A lot of our children and teenagers are afraid of failing - of disappointing themselves or others, of being ridiculed, of self-anger if it’s not perfect: it feels huge. But we can help them. Here are seven ways to help kids and teens find their next step with failure and disappointment.

Pivot how our children perceive failure 

Shift the conversation from trying to make them feel better or fixing the problem. To help our kids feel comfortable with failure, they need to see it as a natural, necessary and strategic part of life. Anything we’ve learned (like how to write or speak) involves lots of mistake-making and we can help our children see that this is normal.

Value effort, learning and progress over perfection

We love praising our kids’ achievements and successes, but it can be easy for them to see perfection as the thing that is valued. But if we start to praise their effort, learning and progress over being perfect, then we can change that. For example, praise how well they have revised and prepared before they take an exam, rather than waiting to comment on the results. Or if in the middle of a child’s angry response you see them stop, praise the effort that took and how much quicker they controlled their temper. Embrace progress, effort and learning  rather than achievement. 

Celebrate character in the midst of failure 

In 'Meet The Robinsons' there’s a moment when something fails: but they celebrate the effort to get back off the floor! Notice your child’s character in difficult circumstances: how they were quick to congratulate their opponent after losing a match; how they have managed a difficult situation with peace. Praising their character in the midst of failure helps them see that it’s not all about success or failure, but about who they are in the journey.

Make experimentation a part of play

By building experimentation into their everyday play, we can help build a mind-set that failure is part of learning. Encourage them to try things and see that part of learning is sometimes doing things that don’t work out: for example, changing a recipe to see if it still works.

Help kids clean up their mess

For our kids, failure can sometimes feel like an end-point: I failed. They can feel powerless to know what to do next. But we can coach them in their next steps, whether that’s how to repair and restore relationships or deal with the financial fallout of their decision. By doing that, they learn that failure isn’t an end-point, but just part of the journey.

Use examples of failures in your life

Create windows into your failures, so they can see where failure fits as part of journeying with God. Frame for them that God doesn’t expect us to be perfect - he is daily shaping us to be like him, and we’re not finished yet, and so you can partner with God too as he shapes and grows you daily. You can model how to apologise to your partner, friends and to them too. By sharing examples of where you’ve failed, where God was in that, and what happened, we show them that failure is a normal part of life that God’s involved in.

Deal with the spiral

Some children, particularly those who value order and perfection, find failing very difficult. Rather than reassure them that everything is great and perfect, ask questions to help you understand how they feel and what their perspective is can help you get to the bottom of the problem without them feeling judged. Questions like ‘tell me about how you felt’, ‘tell me more about that’ and ‘what would you like to have happened’ can help you and them get to the heart of the matter. Then you can help them find their next steps.

This is covered more fully in ‘Parenting Children for a Life of Confidence’, now available as part of the ‘Parenting Children for a Life of Faith Omnibus’. Rachel also hosted a Facebook live webinar on this topic,which you can see here.

Image acknowledgements

Day on failed by Maladen Zivcovic from Canva Pro