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How to Help Our Kids Cope With Failure

I’m no CompetiMom. Or at least, I didn’t think I was. Until my boy took part in a swim gala last week and my aggressive alter ego made her first appearance. Man, does she have a killer instinct.

Adrenaline coursed through my body as I screamed at him to “Go faster!” And he did. But not fast enough. He finished the race without a medal and in tears. It was time for me to put CompetiMom back in her box and assume the role I was much more comfortable with: ShoulderToCryOnMom.

We’d dealt with school sports day disappointments before. But this was different. He loves to swim, and he’s good at it. He really, really wanted to get that medal. This was not a situation for run-of-the-mill platitudes (“You tried your best, and that’s good enough!” “It’s not the winning, it’s the taking part that counts!” “Hey, never mind — let’s go and get a burger!”).

How do we help our kids handle failure? To be honest, I could do with a lesson in that myself. I’m a perfectionist with a bad track record of coping with rejection.

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Have I created a failure-hating mini-perfectionist version of myself? By putting pressure on myself to live up to unattainable standards, am I sending the wrong message to my kids?

I already know the answer, but Florida-based licensed psychologist Kathryn Esquer confirmed it for me. “A parent’s ability to embrace and overcome failures has a direct impact on their children’s perception of failure,” she said. “It is important for parents to set a positive example of how to use failures as a motivating force to succeed in the face of adversity.”

Carrie Krawiec, licensed marriage and family therapist at Birmingham Maple Clinic and executive director of Michigan Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, believes people are more scared of failure than they used to be. “It’s important to understand that fear of failure tends to be fear of not doing something right the first time,” she said. “We are taught that being right gets rewarded and being wrong gets punished (less points, losing a game, scolded for not paying attention, judged by peers).”

Both Esquer and Krawiec blame social media for adding to the pressure. “We are subjected to everybody else’s highlight reel of doing things perfectly via social media and don’t see the trial and error that lead them to this,” said Krawiec. “We need to unlearn the notion that it’s more important to not try and save face than to try and perhaps be wrong.”

“With the rise of social media, I believe that society as a whole has become more avoidant of failures,” agreed Esquer. “How often do we see a marriage, promotion, new job or other success celebrated on social media? Now compare that frequency to the amount of divorces, layoffs, demotions and other failures announced on social media. If we believe that others are succeeding all around us, then that leaves us with very little tolerance for failure in our own lives.”

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Before the next swim gala comes around, here’s what I’ve learned about helping my kids cope with failure.

Set reasonable expectations

We’re not doing our kids any favors by putting pressure on them to come in first/get top marks/win all the prizes. “Parents can set reasonable expectations about getting things right the first time and reward/encourage the willingness to try over just doing something perfectly,” said Krawiec.

Build self-efficacy

“Failure can definitely have a positive impact on your child’s life,” said Esquer. “Children build self-esteem and self-efficacy by overcoming obstacles, not by consistently succeeding or constantly being praised. Self-efficacy is your child’s belief in their ability to succeed at different tasks presented to them.” A strong sense of self-efficacy as a child gives a person a head start when it comes to developing goals, approaching situations and taking on new challenges throughout the rest of their life.

Let your child fail… and encourage them to try again

“Help your child understand that they are capable of adapting themselves and improving their skills across different environments by allowing them to fail, then encouraging them to try again,” said Esquer.

Help your child develop creative ways to solve problems

It’s important for parents to focus on what the child can learn from a failure rather than the child’s ability. “For example, if a child earns a poor grade on a math test, parents should not emphasize the child’s intelligence with well-meaning comments like, ‘Well, you’re still a very good speller,’ or ‘I’m sure you tried your best,'” said Esquer. “Instead, parents should encourage kids to come up with a list of ways the child can overcome the hurdle or solve the problem. Brainstorming as many solutions as possible is useful because it helps children develop creative ways to solve problems and increases their self-efficacy.”

Turn failure into a positive thing

Basically, anything we can do as parents to turn failure into a positive thing is good for our kids. They need to know that we can’t all be good at everything — and that’s totally OK. “Knowing what we are good at helps us narrow down our focus,” explained Krawiec. “Pride comes from overcoming challenges, problem-solving and figuring stuff out. If everything comes easy or naturally to us, we don’t necessarily have the same pride in it. We must get through setbacks and failure to feel pride. Confidence comes from overcoming a challenge.”

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