Resilient Kids: Being Courageous when Faced with Failure

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YouTube is a great tool for developing resilience. A search for the popular “fail” hashtag shows thousands (if not millions!) of people crashing, falling, going the wrong way, and not finishing what they started in every way imaginable. The simple fact that there are so many of these videos shows that failure is a part of everyday life, not just something that happens because we aren’t good enough.

In the moment, when we have failed, we feel so alone. No one has ever felt this way, failed this way, fumed this way before. But look at all this failure! We know–at least intellectually–that everyone fails all the time in ways greater and smaller than what we’re facing.

But for kids, most of their failures are new. Imagine a kid learning how to ride a bike. They see people riding bikes on TV and in the world around them. It looks so easy. Everyone knows how. But that first fall without training wheels might as well be the only time that’s ever happened in the history of time.

Resilience, like everything else, gets easier with practice. That’s why it might seem like no big deal to you to exercise resilience when you forget to pick up the dry cleaning (“Oops, I’ll do that tomorrow!”) but your child comes home in tears the first time they forget to do an important homework assignment.

A lot of techniques to build resilience focus on cognitive solutions like examining problematic beliefs and creating new ways to think about a problem, but kids don’t always have that executive functioning available to them. Especially when emotions are at their peak, it can be difficult for kids to see new solutions or reframe their problems and look toward a positive future.

But fear not! Kids can learn how to be more resilient with some techniques that help even when a setback is fresh in their feelings.

In the moment…

Your child came home after finding out they didn’t get cast in the school play. They’re angry. They’re crying. They say things like, “I’ll never be any good at anything!” and “I’m the worst actor ever–no wonder I didn’t get the part!”

Now is not the time to reason with them. You’ll probably end up going around and around offering solutions they don’t want to hear.

Instead, allow them to express their emotions in healthy, productive ways. Show your support with phrases like, “I can see you’re hurting” and “What can I do to support you right now.” Help them name their feelings through talking, drawing, or acting it out. 

Did you know?

Dr. Matthew D. Lieberman, a research psychologist at UCLA, found that naming an emotion helps to reduce its impact. His lab calls it Affect Labeling

When the strong feelings have calmed down…

Now, you can start to help your child go back to what happened and find positive solutions through tools like reframing.

Non-Resilient Thought:

I hate this and I never want to do a play again!

Resilient Reframes:
I love acting and can try again next time.

Maybe I can ask the director to be an understudy and learn from that.

I can be on the set crew and that will be fun!

Since kids don’t always appreciate helpful suggestions from their parents, use these prompts to help your child come to these conclusions on their own:

Is that true?

Are there any other explanations for what happened?

Can you think of a way you could learn from this?

What would be a way to think about this that makes you feel hopeful?

When it’s time to move on…

Once your child has reframed their negative belief about their failure or setback, help them put a plan in place to take action. This will make resilience stick and gives your child a chance to see how choosing resilience (or, what researcher Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset”) is a necessary step toward reaching their goals. Your child might need to find a mentor or practice strengthening a skill to set themselves up for success in the future.

It seems strange, but the more we fail, the more successful we become. The same is true for kids and you can help them understand this by sharing stories from times you’ve failed and then exercised resilience. You can also help them find stories about their favorite famous leaders and point out how they overcame setbacks and obstacles.

And if all else fails (pun intended!), there’s always YouTube.

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