Last week, I discussed how to help our kids develop problem-solving skills. This week, I want to dig a little deeper into one of the principles I mentioned, specifically letting our kids learn from failure. Letting our children risk failure is one of the most difficult and most necessary ways to help our kids develop resilience. The principle is just as important, or perhaps even more important, for kids who have suffered childhood trauma.
Benefits of Letting Our Kids Fail
Letting our children fail goes against all of our instincts as parents, particularly when we know our kids have suffered trauma. We know how much it hurts to fail, and we worry about the effects on our kids’ self-esteem and self-confidence. Paradoxically, though, if we protect our kids too much, they never learn to take the risks necessary for growth. More important, we inadvertently teach them that the world is a scary place that they can’t navigate alone. Then when they face the inevitable failures that we can’t protect them from, they haven’t learned the skills they need to bounce back.
Even children who have experienced trauma can learn from failure. Going through that painful process fosters resilience, independence, and emotional growth. It helps our kids develop coping skills, build self-esteem, and learn that setbacks are a natural part of life. Encouraging them to face challenges can also help in regaining a sense of control and mastery over their lives, which is a particularly important skill for children who have experienced trauma.
How to Help Our Kids Learn from Failure
When helping children who have experienced trauma learn from failure, there are several important principles that we need to apply:
1. Keep the Risks Age-Appropriate: We can’t let our kids take on just any risk. We don’t let young children play in the traffic, and we don’t encourage older children to experiment with drugs and risk substance abuse. There are some failures that are too far outside our kids’ ability to handle. We need to be sure that we are allowing risks that are within, or just a bit outside, our kids’ skill sets. They can try a new extracurricular activity, figure out their best study habits, or learn a new skill. All of those risks may be difficult to navigate, but none of them is unsafe for our kids.
We may have to be more careful about children who have suffered traumatic experiences, particularly complex trauma. Trauma can hijack a child's normal development, and seemingly minor things can trigger a child's memory of a traumatic event. Even then, our goal is to help our children learn to deal with those triggers and move past the trauma. But we may have to encourage slower movement and more measured risks than children who have not suffered trauma.
2. Set Realistic Expectations: Part of keeping risks age appropriate is helping our kids set goals they can achieve. So, rather than letting them decide to become a music star, we can encourage them to learn a new musical instrument. They won’t become a professional athlete any time soon, but they can aim to increase their batting average or lower their sprint time. Our kids won’t meet even those goals right away, but they can move past setbacks and get some small wins. Goals that match their abilities (plus work and practice) will allow them to experience success and build confidence gradually.
3. Encourage Effort: Even small goals can be difficult to reach, and our kids won’t reach them right away. We can best help them by focusing on their effort rather than solely on the outcome. Praise them for persistence and acknowledge their hard work. Focusing on the process helps them understand that failures may be tough emotionally, but they do offer important lessons.
4. Normalize Mistakes: Let our kids know that making mistakes is a natural and inevitable part of learning new skills. Treat mistakes as just something that happens, not a moral failing. They will take their cues from us, so we need to remain calm, no matter how stupid we think their mistakes are. Help them fix the mistake and treat it as a learning experience. It also might help for you to hare your own failures and how you learned from them. We need to help our kids learn that mistakes and failures are a normal part of being human.
5. Model Resilience: Don’t forget that our children will learn more from our example than our word. We can show them what resilience looks like by handling our own failures with a positive attitude and perseverance.
6. Provide Unconditional Support: Finally, we need to constantly express our love and support, regardless of what our kids actually achieve. Olympic athlete Greg Louganis said that he always told himself before each competition dive, “No matter what happens, my mother will still love me.” That knowledge is incredibly powerful for our children. If they know that their mistakes don’t risk our condemnation or rejection, they will have less fear of failure.
Each of our children has unique needs, so we have to tailor our approach based on their personality and trauma history. The preceding principles, however, will help us find our way to helping our children try new skills, aim for new goals, learn from failure, and develop the resilience they need to move past their trauma.