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The Flip Side of Failure

Growth and Resilience

 Author: Mary Keating

For:  Family Living Magazine

Date:  September 2005

1130 words

Parents eagerly await those first steps, that first smile and those first teeth, but there is one “first” parent wish they could delay forever, that first heartbreak.  Unfortunately, sooner or later every Batman and fairy-princess will feel the sting, whether it is missing the game winning goal or being told, “You are not my friend,” by a fellow preschooler.

Childhood heartbreaks are as inevitable as stuffy noses and stubbed toes.

The reality, life is like trails leading up to a mountain ridge. The trails are pitted with potholes, fallen trees, large boulders, rainstorms and slippery slopes. If a child does not learn to get beyond the potholes or believe they are incapable of getting around the boulders, they will never be able to reach a peak.

The goal for parents then is to nurture resilience and enable their child jump the potholes, hurdle the fallen trees, seek an alternative route and reach for the peak. 

What is resilience?

“Resilience is looking at a problem and seeing it more as a challenge than as a failure,” said Joanne M. Joseph, Ph.D. and author of The Resilient Child: Preparing Today’s Youth for Tomorrow’s World,.

Parents want their child to happy, successful in school, build friendships and ultimately discover a satisfying career.  Resilience is the key to attaining those things. Countless studies have demonstrated that resilience, having the inner strength to cope with any challenges, is vital for growth and for overcoming life’s little setbacks.

Here are eight ideas to help develop good defeat recovery skills:

1.    Allow Mistakes:  As difficult as this sounds, “Children’s’ jobs are to learn and more often then not, they learn by making mistakes,” says Dr. Ninon Germain, child psychiatrist with Portneuf Medical Center. “If a child is perfect, there is no learning curve.”

If a parent is always protecting a child from hurt or defeat, they will never learn to cope on their own. Too often, parents rush in to comfort without listening.  Instead, we need to patiently help them think things through and find their own solutions.  Having a careful balance of intervention and encouragement goes a long way in fostering a balanced child.

Rescuing a child from their struggles, settling their conflicts and sheltering them from challenges send the message they can’t make choices or manage tasks without our help.

2.   Check Your Reactions:   How parents react to their own setback and shortcoming influence how a child will perceive setbacks.  If, as a parent, you constantly harp on your own failures and put yourself down, a child will mirror you.

“Even if your heart aches, act strong and encouraging, rather than angry and bitter,” says Smith. As a dance instructor, Smith has witnessed children who wither when they have made a mistake simply because of parental reaction. “Positive reinforcement and a positive can-do attitude are fair more motivational than humiliation and putdowns.”

Teach children to develop “failure tolerance” by not over-reacting to a mistake.

3.   Be There:  “Parents are the belly-buttons of a kid’s existence,” says Germain.  “Children will always try to please their parents and when they continually fail, they react in one of three ways: a) give up – they fail to take risks because they fear failure, b) become depressed, or c) they become overly anxious and often work to be a perfectionist.

“It is important that children know, win or lose, their parents are going to love them,” says Smith.

Children need lots of love, touchy feely responses and eye contact, says Germain.  “Kids become stronger by love and are made more brittle by tough love.”

Just being there to listen, to support or to hug allows a child to feel confident that you will be there and that they are a priority.

4.   Let them Shine:  Try to encourage activities that will show off special talents.

“Children who have confidence in one area are often better equipped to withstand difficulties in another,” said Germain.

Although resilient children are not deterred by failure, they also relish in success.  This sense of accomplishment and pride gives them confidence to persevere the next time they face a challenge.

Helping children to shine also means allowing them to determine the where and the how. Avoid forcing them to play soccer when they prefer tennis. What a child chooses might not be exactly what you had in mind for them.  But appreciating a child for who they are can make a huge difference.

5.   Treat Failure as a Learning Experience:  “It is important to separate failure from self-worth,” says Germain.  Just because he failed one word during a spelling-bee does not mean he is dumb.  If she misses the goal in the soccer game isn’t an indication that she is not athletic.

It is more important to convey that mistakes are a natural part of life and there is no quota for failed attempts. There is progress and success to be found in each attempt. Teach them that learning from a mistake is valuable.  Consider teaching a child to strive for a personal best and not perfection.

Often, it is not failure itself that is devastating to a child but how they interpret it.

Share your own mistakes and the lessons learned. Over time, a child will begin to think, “How can this help me grow? What can this teach me?”

6.   Always Give an “A” for Effort:  “Disconnect the effort from the result,” says Germain.

If your he played a great game or she danced to her personal best, but did not bring home the trophy, the effort should be separated from the outcome.  Praise them for their effort rather than dwelling on the result.

“Teach a child to value the effort, because every putt does not drop, 50 percent of free-throws are missed and every pass doesn’t result in a touchdown,” says Smith.  “The trick is to enjoy the ride, not the destination.”

7.    Give them Opportunities to Contribute:  Helping others promotes feelings of independence and self-confidence. Asking a child to help set the table or clean up the toys, maturity demands, make children stronger, says Germain. 

From an early age, children love to be helpful.  When parents give a child an opportunity to handle a task, it gives them a sense of responsibility.

8.   Be Empathetic:  Seeing the world through a child’s eyes, understanding how they must be feeling and how that loss or comment affected them. 

“Think outside of yourself,” says Smith “Put yourself in their shoes.”

By being there when your children need you, helping them to remain calm, offering the right kind of assistance, parents nurture a child’s trust in the world as well as in themselves.

With guidance and love, parents can give a child the courage to tackle challenges head-on, and bounce back from them as better, stronger people.