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If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again

5 min read   •   

As parents, we are willing to do almost anything for our children – including going to ever-greater lengths to protect them from the pain of dashed expectations. But failure is a part of life and, no matter how excruciating it may be to watch our children struggle after a setback, teaching them to handle disappointments will help them develop crucial life skills, such as problem-solving, acceptance, creative thinking, and resilience.

On the other hand, not learning how to cope with setbacks may leave children feeling overwhelmed, leading to meltdowns when they inevitably fail and making them vulnerable to anxiety and depression. It may also result in adults who are ‘failure deprived’, a term coined by faculty at Stanford and Harvard Universities to describe students who have difficulty coping with everyday struggles.

In fact, in The Gift of Failure, author and teacher Jessica Lahey says challenging experiences are the only way to develop specific coping and problem-solving skills. If we shield our children from adversity, key brain connections can’t develop.

Setbacks and disappointments may test your child’s motivation, abilities, and character. Whatever the test, here are some steps to help your child cope.


  1. Embrace the emotions


We don’t like to see our children upset and hurting, but it is important not to dismiss uncomfortable emotions such as frustration, disappointment, or regret. Encourage your child to put her thoughts into words, then listen to what she says and validate her feelings. Allow your child to feel the frustration and disappointment that comes with failure but teach her not to wallow in it.


  1. Put things in perspective


After a single misstep, it is easy for your child to think that she is doomed to failure. But remind her that everyone has setbacks – even professionals (in any industry) aren’t at their best all the time. Instead of focusing on what went wrong, remind her of all the times things went right.


  1. Concentrate on what can be controlled


Helping your child focus on what she can control, despite the situation, will give her a sense of certainty and confidence the next time she faces a setback. Things within her control include her attitude, effort, and response.


  1. Look at it as an opportunity to learn


Remind your child that a setback can be a chance to evaluate what could be changed or improved in future if faced with a similar situation. Failure doesn’t mean your idea wasn’t valid or that your attempt wasn’t good enough; it simply means there is something to be learned or another direction to be taken.


  1. Take action


Shift the focus away from the frustration and disappointment of what happened and look at what they can work on in the future. For example, if her matric year did not go as planned and her results were not what she had hoped to achieve, there is a second chance to achieve the desired marks. Don’t dwell on the cause of the setback. Instead, focus on moving forward.


Here are a few other important aspects we as parents should consider:


  • Don’t obsess over achievement


The world is becoming increasingly competitive, and we all want our children to be winners, but sending the message that results matter most can be damaging. When children become attached to a single desired outcome, they may feel lost and devastated when they don’t achieve that specific result. Instead teach them if they work hard and learn something in the process, any outcome achieved is worthwhile, even if it is not what they had hoped for.


Also read: Don’t tell your kids they are smart!


  • Cultivate a growth mindset


A growth mindset teaches children that learning is a process, that abilities can be developed, and that it is okay to take calculated risks. One way to help your child cultivate a growth mindset is to offer constructive feedback that focuses on effort and process rather than the outcome.


  • Be a guide, not a saviour


You can’t and won’t always be there to fix things when your child falls short or gets excluded, so prepare her to manage disappointments. Yes, it’s tempting to intervene and solve the problem, but giving your child the opportunity to work through her feelings, come up with a plan or solve the problem herself shows that you have confidence in her ability.


We should teach our children not to fear failure. It is an essential, albeit uncomfortable and often overwhelming, part of life. Life won’t always be perfect, and learning that from a young age will help build resilience and equip our children with the courage, strength, and wisdom to face the future.