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Turning Failure into a Challenge

Dealing with failure is difficult for all of us, but as parents, we often find it even harder to watch kids struggle with it. During classes in Happy, Relaxed Parenting and at book signings for The “Perfect” Parent, I’m often asked some important questions about helping children understand and deal with failure. Here’s what I say:

Why is failure important for kids?

When children fail at things, they are faced most strongly with a single leading emotion: disappointment. This emotion points in two different directions:

1. Kids are disappointed in themselves for being unsuccessful at achieving their goal. In other words, they feel they have failed themselves.

2. Kids fear that their parents or loved ones will be disappointed by their failure. In other words, they feel they have failed their parents.

Once children work through the disappointment in themselves—with the help of parents, other family members, or caregivers—their self-reliance and self-confidence will increase. Through failure children learn to recover and be stronger!

And, when handled with patience, from the fear that they have disappointed their parents will come an understanding of unconditional love, trust, and respect. These are all great self-esteem boosters, deepening the connection between parent and child and strengthening their relationship.

Failure helps children understand themselves and recognize their inner resources, their inner core, or what I like to call inner perfection—self-confidence, self-esteem, and resilience.

How can you encourage kids to try something if they are afraid of failing?

First of all, realize that today’s over-extended kids often feel pressure to do it all and be perfect. In my opinion, there are three main factors contributing to this pressure:

1. Competition at school or in extracurricular activities like sports, dance, etc.
2. Expectations that parents put on children, consciously or subconsciously
3. A child’s individual nature or personality

Today’s child is involved in so many different types of activities requiring a variety of skills. It is not uncommon to find athletic children on debate teams, playing musical instruments, or in chess clubs. Realistically, however, it is rare to be able to succeed in all of them. Children might feel that they have to excel at everything, but of course that’s simply not possible. Some may begin to shrink from trying something for fear of failure.

If that happens, for the word “failure,” substitute the word “challenge.” The former is disheartening, the latter uplifting. The former creates self-doubt, while the latter inspires one to step up and find a new resolution. The former leaves a child with fearful negative emotions, while the latter encourages positive ones. You can’t control the outcome, but why not use words that are conducive to building a child’s self-confidence and self-esteem? This way, he or she learns how to get up after a fall.

Here are three surefire ways to encourage kids who are afraid of new challenges:

1. Lovingly reassure them that they need to try it, just once, before concluding that they won’t be successful. Use the old adage “You won’t know it until you try it.”
2. Lovingly reassure them that you will be proud of them for trying, regardless of the results.
3. Lovingly remind them that by taking on challenges, we try new experiences, we grow, and we learn. Through this growth we build our self-confidence, self-respect, and self-esteem. And through this growth comes happiness and joy.

If your child or grandchild does fail in something—whether school, sports, or social encounters—what should you say?

When children are feeling sad or down, the best thing to do is to be their emotion coach. Help them discuss and sort out their feelings and build their emotional intelligence. Research tells us that by building a child’s emotional intelligence, we increase their chances for academic and life success!

How do you do this? By using an effective communication tool I like to call, “Dealing with the Feeling.” There are three steps:

1. Spot it – Spot the feeling that the child might be experiencing (anger, sadness, disappointment, etc.)
2. Say it – Say the feeling out loud (I know you are angry right now…)
3. Okay it – Validate the feeling (I can totally understand how you’re feeling…) You can add a personal example or story to make them feel that they are not alone and that feelings are not right or wrong.

Then move to resolve.

Dealing with the Feeling helps turn down the temperature of the emotion so that you can engage the child’s intellect, helping him or her work through the emotion and make sense of the situation. This also builds trust and understanding between you and the child.

What are some things you shouldn’t say?

What were you thinking? What’s wrong with you? You’re not trying hard enough.
Basically, say nothing that would hurt children further or make them feel worse about
themselves. Be kind and empathetic, put yourself in their shoes, and imagine what you would feel like in a similar situation. You can do it. It wasn’t that long since you were their age!

Then, let your unconditional love guide you to the right words. And last but not least, spoil them with tons of those extra special hugs that only you know how to give!

In Joy!

Founder of Tools of Growth

Roma Khetarpal is the founder and CEO of Tools of Growth. Through parenting classes, community outreach, articles, reviews, and blog posts, Tools of Growth provides parents with simple, easy-to-remember, and effective communication tools that can help them build a strong foundation and relationship with their children. She is also the author of "The 'Perfect' Parent: 5 Tools for Using Your Inner Perfection to Connect With Your Kids."