My son, Ethan, just participated in a Lego League competition. Everyone on his team contributed to designing the robot, programming it, researching a project, and performing a presentation. Lego League emphasizes collaborative teamwork, leadership and work ethics. It’s a great experience for kids. Many wake up at 5:30 in the morning to attend this all day meet. On this day, they get to showcase their hard work. Their stress builds up as they experience the energy of the competition, the extremely loud and crowded environment, and the weight of their own expectations.
The day progressed relatively well and although their scores were not earth shattering, they were pleased with the outcome; that is, until the last “battle of the robots”. Ethan had taken on a lot of the programming. Each challenge the robot was to perform had been tested multiple times. So imagine his surprise and horror when only 1 out of the 5 challenges they attempted succeeded. He was crushed. He came back to sit next to me, holding back tears. His frustration bubbled inside of him like a shaken soda can. The more he talked about it, the angrier with himself he became. He bore the weight of his team’s perceived failure on his little shoulders. His disappointment was obvious to everyone around, including his teammates. It took a lot of work on my part (and his) to refocus his thinking.
James Joyce once said: “Mistakes are the portals of discovery”. Many children, however, take failure to heart. They get stuck on the negative outcomes, instead of cherishing the experience. Do they learn these rigid patterns of thinking from their parents, or from a school system stuck on black and white answers? Where ever it comes from, it is indeed a hard burden to bear. Resilience depends on flexible thinking as well as a person’s ability to view a situation through different lenses. Parents and educators can make a difference by how they guide their kids and students through failure.
5 Ways to Help a Child Deal with Failure
1. Get Them to Change Their Body Language
We feel trauma, whether physical or emotional, in our bodies. Frustration triggers a series of physical reactions. As negative thoughts take over and stress hormones rush in, your body closes up. A child who is angry, and frustrated, will hold his arms crossed in front of him, or close to his torso, fists tighten, the jaw clenches, eyebrows furrow, and shoulders hunch forward. This position actually increases the amount of cortisol (stress hormone) being produce in the body. It also restricts breathing patterns by constricting the lungs, which in turn contributes to the feeling of panic that comes along with frustration. Breaking the physical pattern is the first step, to reduce the stress response and calming his system down. Get him to sit up straight in order to open up his chest cavity and improve breathing patterns. Shoulders should be back. Or see if you can get him to bring his arms up slowly into a V position above his head while he takes several deep breaths. Have him do this 5 to 10 times.
2. Get Them to Drink Some Water
Drinking water calms the system down because it controls breathing as well as hydrates our cells. Orchestrating a stress response is exhausting to the body. It creates a lot of inflammatory responses and also releases very acidic chemicals in our system. It’s toxic to our health and brain processes. Oxygenating and hydrating our cells helps calm down our thought process. It tells our body that things can’t be as bad as we think they are because we are taking the time to rehydrate.
3. Reframing the Scenario
In this very moment, your child perceives his failure as the only thing that matters. His narrow focus misses the richness of details that surrounds the situation. First, validate his right to feel frustrated and angry. Disappointment is hard to take, especially with one’s self. Try to guide the conversation towards the positive outcome of the situation. In my son’s case, the experience of working with other passionate kids and experiencing great collaboration. What if the failure had been his best friend’s, not his; what would he say to his friend? Chances are that he will come up with very kind and thoughtful comments. This is when you should smile and say that he deserves the same kindness towards himself as he would bestow upon his friend.
4. Modeling and Talking About the Purpose of Failure
I often tell my kids that failure is the best thing that can happen to them. It’s what makes you grow; it’s what makes success possible. If you took a risk, at some level you trusted yourself enough to do it. If failure ensues, it does mean that you should not have trusted yourself. You just need a different way to tackle your problem, and you need to try again.
Kids learn from their world. We need to be comfortable with our kids failing and we should encourage them to take intelligent risks. It also means that we need to model this in our own lives. Children are avid observers, so you have to practice what you preach.
Always emphasize the joy of the journey over the outcome. Learning, just like living, is a journey. The beauty is in each step, not reaching the mountain top.
5. Use Storytelling as a Way to Stretch Their Rigid Thinking
Studies show that kids respond emotionally to stories, especially their parents’. They need to hear how you grew from your own mistakes and disappointments. The more you can share with them your own experience of failure, the more they will be able to positively process their own challenges. Children start out thinking that their parents are god-like figures, these are indeed big shoes to fill for their little feet. A personal narrative offers a more realistic view of who you are and how you learn and grow everyday. When they hear your words, they know that it is okay for them to make mistakes, because everybody, including their parents, does. It tells them that taking risks and making mistakes does not have to be scary.