When Your Kid Makes a Mistake
The bases were loaded with two outs in the ninth inning of a Little League championship game when 9-year-old Aidan Peterson came to bat for his team, which was down a couple of runs. "Aidan popped a fly ball that was caught, and that ended the game," recalls his mom, Leisa, of Truckee, California, who watched from the stands. "He was holding back tears -- he thought he let everyone down. My heart sank for him."
Seven- to 9-year-olds are less able to shrug off mistakes than they were when they were younger. Learn how to help your child realize that a missed shot or forgotten line is not the end of the world.
Put Off The Pep Talk
Resist swooping in with "You gave it your best" or "We'll practice more so it'll go better next time," and first let your child do the talking. "Nothing you say in the moment will make it okay, so allow him to get his feelings out. It will help him to learn from the situation," says Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist in Bainbridge Island, Washington. If he's not talking at all, you can give him a hug and nudge a bit by asking him to tell you what he's thinking. After he has calmed down, you can tell him about a similar mistake you or one of his role models has made.
If you constantly praise your child's performance ("You nailed that backflip!") rather than her effort ("I'm impressed by how much you've practiced for the gymnastics meet"), mistakes become harder for her to swallow, explains Carol Dweck, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Stanford University, who conducted landmark research on kids' resilience and persistence. In one study, she gave hundreds of fifth-graders a test made for eighth-graders. One group had been previously praised for their effort, and the other group was told how intelligent they were. "The kids who got kudos for their intelligence were upset about how tough the test was while the group praised for their effort coped and performed better," says Dr. Dweck. "They realized that how hard they worked mattered, not just the end result."
Learn From Experience
Once your child's initial hurt has subsided, talk about how he got through it so he can cope the next time. "You can ask, 'Remember when you felt like this before? What did you do then?'" says Christopher Willard, Psy.D., a psychologist in Boston and author of Child's Mind. You also can brainstorm together about ways to avoid repeating the mistake. That's what Tobi Kosanke, of Hempstead, Texas, did when her third-grader, Jemma, forgot a line in the school play. "There was an uncomfortable silence, and when Jemma got backstage at the end of the show, she was so upset," recalls Kosanke. Later, they theorized that the audience probably wouldn't even notice a missing line, so it's best to just keep going. She put that strategy to the test a few months later. "Jemma was performing in a different show and had problems with her microphone," Kosanke recalls. "But instead of getting flustered, she covered it beautifully."
Take Fear Out of Failure
Your child may think that you won't love her as much or be as proud of her if she messes up, says Dr. Willard. "Resist telling her the game or recital doesn't matter, which invalidates her passions," he says. "Instead, emphasize the message that you don't expect perfection, and while it feels lousy to make a mistake, it's part of life and it won't affect how you feel about her." And if she says she doesn't want to be in that activity anymore because of her goof, remind her of how much fun she's had doing it and that she should hold on to those memories, rather than dwell on one bad moment.
Talk to your child about what to do if his friend is the one who's freaking out about having kicked the soccer ball into the other team's goal or forgotten words to a poem he was supposed to recite in front of the class. "Sometimes kids huddle around the child who's upset, and that makes it worse," says Carolyn Ievers-Landis, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital, in Cleveland. Instead, let him know that it's fine to just act normally, though he could also think of a small gesture that might make his friend happy. "He might say, 'I'll save you a seat at lunch,' or 'See you on the bus later!'" suggests Dr. Ievers-Landis. "If a child knows his friend doesn't see a mistake as a big deal, he's more likely to give himself a break too."
Originally published in the December 2014 issue of Parents magazine.