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Gail Heyman, Ph.D.
Gail Heyman Ph.D.

Talking with Your Kids about Setbacks

Promote resilience in your child.

How we cope with failure and disappointment can have a big impact on our lives. It can affect our emotional well being and how we relate to others. Ultimately it can pave the way for our successes, because achieving success is nearly impossible without risking failure.

Some children find it especially difficult to deal with setbacks, and this may be something that parents have little or no control over. Not everyone has the kind of easygoing personality that helps them avoid feeling overwhelmed when things go wrong.

What parents can influence is the way their children think about what setbacks mean. One maladaptive pattern of reasoning that people often fall into is to focus on what their performance on a particular occasion says about what they are capable of accomplishing in general. For example, a beginning musician who makes a glaring mistake at a school concert may begin to worry about whether she has what it takes to be successful in music. Many parents who hear their children voice such self-doubts respond by praising their skills. Although praising children's skills seems like a good idea, it can backfire. Children who receive this type of praise tend to learn that they will be judged based on the outcomes that they produce. When this happens they often reason that if they are being judged by their successes, they are being judged by their failures as well. This makes it even more threatening to risk failure.

A better message to convey is that difficulties and setbacks can serve as stepping stones for success. This message can be hard for children to absorb because we live in a society in which a wide range of outcomes are evaluated, often in very public ways. Another problem is that people often hide their failures. When other people’s failures are invisible to us, it can promote the false idea that facing difficulties in life is not normal.

So what can parents do to help children deal with setbacks more effectively? Parents can talk about their own struggles and the struggles of people they know, including some of the pathways that eventually led them to success. How parents respond to setbacks that their children observe can also be important. A parent who beats up on herself when she makes a mistake may be undermining the message that it is okay to fail.

It’s important to keep in mind that teaching kids to persist in the face in obstacles is not the same as teaching them that it's never a good idea to quit. Continuing an activity for an extended period of time that your child doesn't enjoy and that does not serve as a foundation for future opportunities may not be the best choice.

Parents can encourage their children to overcome challenges by helping them understand that obstacles are a natural part of the learning process. It is only when children give themselves a chance to work through challenges that they can begin to figure out what they are capable of.

Conversation Starters

Can you think of a time when you felt better about a problem you were having after talking to someone who had the same problem?

Can you think of a time when you wished you could hit the undo button on something you did?

What would you say to a friend who was sad about making a mistake during a musical performance?

Is it a good idea for people to quit activities that they find frustrating?

Check out my free app for iOS, Beyond Small Talk, which offers questions as starting points for meaningful conversations. You can download it directly here.

About the Author
Gail Heyman, Ph.D.

Gail Heyman, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of California at San Diego.

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