How to Prepare Your Kids to Deal Effectively With Setbacks and Failures

Growth Mindset for Kids(This article is part of our series on Mindset.)

As you watch your child take on something new, how many of you silently pray “Oh gosh, please, please let him not fail”?

It’s the natural parenting instinct in us.

Most of us do this, even though we know that statistically, there is no way anyone can go through their life without failing a few times. And we do it in spite of understanding at some level that a few setbacks may actually be good for for our kids – to learn perseverance, grit, resilience; to build character and to feel a deep fulfilling satisfaction when they succeed.

So, given that our kids will fail at some time or the other, and failure is in some sense necessary for them (and that we have a very weak stomach for it), how can we respond appropriately in case of setbacks and failures, so we can teach our kids to deal with them effectively?

That is the question we will deal with today.

Buckle up, ladies and gentlemen — it’s another thrilling roller coaster ride in this wonderful world of fine parenting :)

The Background

So, all this month we’ve been looking at mindset — we’ve seen how the right mindset can make a difference in our perception of success and failure and the way we engage with life; we’ve inspected our part in our kids lives as their role models and how to develop the growth mindset in ourselves first; and we’ve inspected ways to praise our kids the right way so they are internally motivated instead of turning into praise junkies.

In this final installment we’ll inspect ways to help them deal with setbacks and failures effectively. While reading the prior articles is not necessary for reading today’s article, I believe it can help you grasp what we talk about today at a deeper level. So, if you haven’t read the older articles yet, do come back to them when time permits!

Fair Warning

I put in a lot of effort to make the articles here quickly scannable, so no matter how busy you are, you can still find some time to skim through these articles. But please consider this section today mandatory.

OK, here’s the deal. Just like the last couple of weeks, we are going to look at an example scenario, a few possible responses and dig into why they may or may not be good choices. However, putting together today’s article made me wince very uncomfortably more than a few times because I’ve responded in every single one of these ways in different situations — including all of the “how NOT to deal with setbacks” responses.

There’s enough guilt that we parents feel for any number of reasons about our choices. And I certainly don’t want to add more to your list of things to feel guilty about. As you read, please remember that this is not an evaluation of the kind of parent you are or a judgement. And it certainly isn’t meant to shame or guilt-trip you.

The goal here is to inspect a few of the normal, regular responses we parents have and organize them in a way that they can be filed away more easily in our brain. This way the next time we start off with a response that is not the best option, a little voice in our head starts saying: “Poor choice, change your response… Poor choice, change your response…” and we can stop (even mid-sentence if we have to) and choose a better way to handle the situation. Please, do remember this as you read.

We good?

OK, here we go –

Example Scenario: The Swim Meet Disaster

Consider this sample scenario adapted from the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. To get the most of this exercise, please picture the actual scenario in your mind with the face of one of your kids and modify it from “swimming” to any other activity that is most appropriate for your child.

How to Prepare Your Kids to Deal Effectively With Setbacks and FailuresLet’s say your son loves swimming and has always taken to water like a fish. Many of the coaches at the swim school where he practices have commented on what a perfect “swimmer’s body” he has. He is making his first foray into competitive swimming and though he is a little nervous, he feels confident that he will win several medals.

The first event is the 800m freestyle in which he feels the most confident. He starts strong but his breathing technique slows him down. He quickly loses the lead and in the end, finishes fourth. He is disappointed, but takes it in his stride and heads into his next event with confidence. Unfortunately, this time he finishes fifth. The streak continues with more fourth and fifth place finishes. In the end, your son has no medals and is devastated.

What would you do?

Let’s look at some of the possible responses

  • Response 1:

    You feel disappointed. You had such high hopes for your son. You woke up at 5am all summer to take him to practice and you paid a fortune for those classes! You feel let down. You remember the coach telling him over and over to focus on his breathing. If only that child could listen and not be so headstrong!

    With all this going on in your mind, you wonder what is the best way to get him to see his mistake and to learn from it? You think you should make sure he sees the point now, while the pain of loss is still fresh in his mind. You decide it’s best to strike while the iron is hot. So, as he comes out the door with his shoulders sagging, you blurt – “Didn’t the coach tell you over and over to focus on your breathing? You are so headstrong and never listen to anyone else! This is what happens when you don’t pay attention to what your coach says — you’ll end up a loser! You have to start focusing on that breathing.”

    Why it’s not a good choice:

    Your intentions are good. You want your child to learn. But at this time, what he needs is some compassion and someone who understands/supports him. You can teach him the importance of listening to the coach, but this isn’t the most effective approach to get the message across — with this response, you lose a valuable opportunity to connect with your son when he is feeling very vulnerable. Some of the strongest bonds are formed during these harsh moments life throws your way and that bond is what helps you effectively teach anything.

    Also, with this response, without quite realizing you are sowing the seeds of a strong fixed mindset that could haunt him for life. Labeling your child as “headstrong” will only make that trait more ingrained in him, and in your own mind. Declaring that he never listens turns a simple mistake into a character flaw. And I think the saddest fallout of this outburst is that instead of thinking “I lost” (a transient event) he could start thinking “I’m a loser” (an identity). Can you see how devastating that can be?

  • Response 2:

    You feel miserable about how the situation unraveled for your son. You understand that he is disappointed and decide that teaching him any lessons should wait. You know how much this meant to him, and you want to really make him feel better. So, in an attempt to boost up his confidence you say, “It doesn’t matter. I still think you are the best”.

    Why it’s not a good choice:

    While this is definitely an improvement from the previous response, it is inherently insincere. It does matter – to both you and your son. And, you know that your son was not the best, at least not today. And he knows it too. He may like hearing you say that you still think he is the best, and it may provide a short burst of good feeling, but it does nothing to how he feels deep down. And it may actually hurt his self-esteem instead of helping — by propping his confidence up on the crutch of your feel-good words, you make his self-esteem susceptible to dependence on external validation, possibly crippling it for life. Also, since the entire focus of this response is on making him feel better, you miss the opportunity to help him learn how to deal with setbacks in an effective manner.

  • Response 3:

    You’ve been there with your son all through the preparation… for each stroke he mastered, each barrier he pushed through and every single lap he took. At this point you feel as miserable as he does. You feel his pain and frustration in every fiber of your being. And perhaps you feel the unfairness of how things turned out far worse than him. As soon as he steps out the door, you try to reassure him (as much as yourself) by saying – “That was just so wrong. You really should have won those medals. It was so unfair that they put you in the lane closest to the wall which is the hardest one to swim in. You almost made it in all of those events in spite of that! Those medals should have been yours. […]”

    Why it’s not a good choice:

    While your frustration and pain are obvious and you are finding ways to deal with them as much as your son is, with this response, you are teaching your son a few terrible lessons – (a) it’s all about winning/losing and effort does not matter and (b) if you don’t win, it’s usually someone else’s fault.

    We see it everywhere in the world around us – instead of enjoying the process, we tend to get riveted on the outcome. And every time something goes wrong, instead of saying “I messed up, how can I fix it”, people scramble to find someone to blame. These are the classic signs of a fixed mindset. No matter how deep your disappointment is, make a conscious effort to not let your child grow up into this mindset!

  • Response 4:

    Just like in response 2 and 3, you feel miserable. You can feel your son’s pain and disappointment as if it were your own. You start to rationalize. You think, “After all, it is just swimming. He is still good in other things.” The more you think along these lines, the calmer you start to feel. When your son comes out with his sagging shoulders, you start to share this with him – “It’s OK. It was just swimming. Swimming isn’t so important after all. You’ve been doing great in soccer — maybe we can focus on that instead. (OR) You’ve been doing great at studies — that’s what helps you find a job, not swimming”.

    Why it’s not a good choice:

    Again, your intentions are good — you want to make sure your son is not too devastated by this loss. You want him to be able to move on from this quickly. The problem here is, unintentionally, you are teaching him to devalue something that he isn’t successful at the first time around. You are inadvertently teaching him to run away from a situation when things don’t work out the way he hoped for.

    Also, based on the amount of effort he’s put in this so far, he obviously loves swimming. By trying to wean him away from the pain of his loss, you may also be weaning him away from something he is very passionate about, which would be a very sad thing, wouldn’t it?

  • Response 5:

    His performance stumps you. You don’t get it. From the time he was little, he’s always taken to water like a fish. Several of his coaches have told you that he is a natural and even has the perfect body build that gives him a competitive edge. As you try to make sense of this, your son walks out with his shoulders slumped. You rush to console him – “Don’t worry. You are a born swimmer. You have the natural body and talent for it. You’ll win next time.”

    Why it’s not a good choice:

    While this seems like an innocuous way for a parent to support a child, according to Dr. Dweck in the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, this is one of the most dangerous message we can send to our kids. It has all the classic trappings of a fixed mindset – the belief that talent and inherent abilities are obtained at birth, and they are what make you good at something. If the born abilities, natural body and talent did not help you son win this time, how/why will they help him next time? Do we really want our kids to think that they are “gifted” in some way and can win because of their born gifts?

    When the focus is on natural talent, instead of effort, the child loses control over the situation. Does failure then mean that the talent is not enough? If that is the case, why would the child even be motivated to try harder, or try at all – in his mind the judgement has been made that he is not “enough” and can never be since abilities are what you “inherently” have or not have!

  • Response 6:

    You feel your son’s pain. When he walks out, you first connect with him physically – maybe a quick hug, or an arm on his shoulders or a pat on the back. And then you say in an honest voice – “Look, I know how much this meant to you. I can imagine how you feel right now. When you work so hard and put in so much effort and have your hopes crushed, I know how disappointing it can be. But you know, you haven’t earned it yet. You are competing with some of the best swimmers out there, and they have put in a lot of time and effort in this as well. If this really means something to you, you need to really keep working for it. You have a great starting performance, you need to become unbeatable at it. And your breathing technique could use some improvement – you need to really get on top of it. You look tired now, let’s brainstorm on how to move forward when you’ve had some rest. Oh, and by the way, if you want to do this purely for fun, and don’t want to do it competitively, that’s fine too. One way or the other, I’m always here for you, OK?”.

    Why it’s a great choice:

    This response acknowledges your son’s efforts and hard work, empathizes with his current feelings, gently let’s him know that he’s not quite there yet while encouraging him to keep trying — all without propping him up on false hopes or harsh criticism. This response from the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success made me have a lump in my throat for the incredibly supportive, non-judgmental, unconditional nature of it!

    While it may seem easy when we read it, I know from my personal experiences that when you are in the situation and feeling all those conflicting emotions churning in your head, it is so hard to respond like this! But in the end, this is our goal — to help our kids see setbacks as transient events that they can overcome with effort, hard work and in some cases maybe with some out-of-the box thinking. To help them realize that setbacks are a natural side-effect of trying to achieve higher goals, not character flaws, or a judgment of who they are!

In the end, it comes down to this – great parenting is just as much an acquired skill as anything else. You don’t get into a swim meet without practicing a lot first, and you certainly don’t win medals by wishing you could. Similarly, we don’t get to be great parents without practising first or just wishing we could. Practice every chance you get – and you will get a lot of them – and focus on moving a tad bit closer to being the unconditionally supportive parent at every opportunity!

The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents

OK, so for today’s quick action, pick one of the recent setbacks one of your kids had.

  • How did you respond (it is likely going to be a combination of several of the above responses)?
  • What kind of underlying message did that response send to your child?
  • Was it the appropriate response? If not, how else might you have responded?

As I mentioned early in this article, this is not about guilt-trips or shame. Instead think of this as an exercise in mindfulness – acknowledge what your response was, and mentally rehearse an alternative if necessary, so next time life throws a curve ball you are better prepared to respond in a more encouraging, growth-minded way.

The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents

Hopefully in the span of one week, life won’t throw you too many opportunities like the high-impact example above to exercise your growth-mindset. So, for now let’s practice the growth-minded response with smaller challenges so when we do face the bigger challenges, we are better prepared. Throughout the week let’s look for small situations where we can try this.

(P.S.: My daughter gave me a perfect opportunity for “practice” even as I was finishing up this article :). She was bringing her complex Lego structure (“space camera flying machine”) to show to me, and during the transit it crashed. She was devastated. My first instinct was to try calming her down with “It’s OK, it’s just Lego” but I quickly stopped myself because to her, in that moment, it was anything but “just” Lego. I acknowledged how much effort she had put in it and how bad she must be feeling and all the good stuff (with her howling all along — “It’s ruined. I’ll NEVER be able to make a beautiful space camera flying machine EVER AGAIN!”). Eventually though, she calmed down and went back to happily churning out another mind-boggling innovation :). Based on my past experiences which had ended up in kicking away Legos with declarations of “I NEVER want to play with Lego again” and angry reaction from me of what happens to “ungrateful” kids — I think I did get it right this time. Baby steps in the right direction… that’s what it’s all about, right?)

Click here for more from the series Mindset

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  1. Libby says

    How funny that your daughter’s Lego crash happened just *then*. Thanks for creating this series! It’s great to have the regular reminder to think carefully, and you make them fun to read as well.

    • Sumitha Bhandarkar says

      Thanks for your kind words, Libby. I think the greatest help for me from writing these articles personally has been that it made me more mindful of the impact of my words on my daughter. Take for instance the Lego incident… On a regular day, I’m not sure how I would have responded, but since the topic was fresh in my mind I responded constructively. And since I stopped to think about it, hopefully it’s gotten ingrained in my mind, and during future incidents (with Legos, or otherwise) I hope I have a higher chance that my automatic response is constructive, even if I don’t really stop to “think” about it. I hope reading these articles will do the same to some of you!

  2. says

    Once again a great article!
    Too often we view mistakes and failures as “bad” rather than as steps in the learning process. Sure, we’ve all been taught to remember that Edison tried hundreds of filaments in his light bulbs before he found one that worked well. Unfortunately with parenting, it isn’t easy to see when we are making mistakes! That’s all the more reason to respond to our own past parenting setbacks in a manner similar to how we should now know to respond to our children’s – gently, with empathy and an acknowledgement of the perseverance and effort involved. Parenting ain’t easy!

    • Sumitha Bhandarkar says

      Beautifully said, Kelsey! Sadly, far too many of us beat ourselves up when we mess something up as parents, rather than seeing these also as the proverbial stepping stones to success. I’ve done it so many times myself, that it isn’t even funny :( Thanks for this wonderful reminder comment!

  3. says

    This is a great article. I actually just wrote a post before reading this about how I was going to have trouble coping with the feelings I have when things don’t always go right for my son (read grizzly bear). While he isn’t quite at the swim meet stage yet, I am glad I was able to read this because while I already knew it in a way, it was good to have it spelled out for me. You are totally right, empathy is always a good choice for your children. Funny enough how you separated each scenario when I am the type of person who naturally would say ALL of them in a scenario (not with my kids, but say a friend or my brother). I will be practising this myself for sure. Thank you so much.

    • Sumitha Bhandarkar says

      Thanks, Shannon! I separated the responses based on the example in the Mindset book just as a way of showing *why* some of the responses are better avoided. That said, as I mentioned in the article, like you, my responses are all over the place as well. For the first time last week though, I tried to mindfully, intentionally use a response similar to the last one on the list (my daughter made it to the finals of a poem reciting competition in her school, but did not win). I’m not sure how much it helped her, but it sure made me feel a whole lot better :) I suspect a lot of our responses are an extension of how we feel, and writing this article is helping me regulate my responses when things don’t quite go our way — big and small. I’ll take that — it’s a huge improvement from my former highly-reactive personality :)

  4. Geeta Krishnan says

    Hi Sumitha,
    This article has come up at a very right time for me. I would like to relate my experience, which happened two days before your post.
    My son has been appearing for his XII Board exams this March. During the year, his Maths teacher had been particularly mentoring him and had pinned her hopes on him to acquire a centum (Century). My son was elated and motivated at the same time. He worked hard practicing the various topics and solved many earlier years’ papers.
    Sumitha, you won’t believe, the day he had his Maths exam, I had this uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach. I kept praying and only wished, my son should not get disappointed with himself.
    When I went to pick him after the exam, I waited at a distance from the school gate. His Maths teacher was at the gate of the school and was busy clarifying doubts of various students. My son went to her with his question paper and was in serious discussion with her. From far, I realised, he would be losing a few marks. I walked ahead, after he sighted me. He was with his friends. When I turned the ignition key, I looked up, as he sat beside me. He was all of smiles. He said he totally enjoyed solving the paper. He got solutions to all the problems, which he had practiced well. He, himself, then said,’ Amma, I should have practiced the topic of ‘Integration’ a little more.” I asked him,’how he felt now that he wont be getting the full marks?” He laughed and replied back that he was not upset but happy that what he practiced, he did well. I didn’t have much to speak . Sometimes, silence and being present is all that is needed.

    • Sumitha Bhandarkar says

      Wow, that shows a lot of maturity on your son’s part, Geeta!!! It’s rare to see it in teenagers these days… you should be proud of him, and in how you’ve raised him!

      While I’m sorry about his math paper, I think this kind of attitude will take him much farther than the math score. Good luck with the rest of the exams and what the future holds!

  5. says

    I went through something similar with my son who is almost 5 years old. His younger sister always breaks his Lego and he gets extremely upset. Only recently I realized that acknowledging his feelings and helping him fix his broken Lego yields better results than telling him it is ok.

    • Sumitha Bhandarkar says

      It’s kind of hard for us to see how much that Lego set means to a 5 year old, right? And yet, to them, at that moment, it is their world… a world that they built by themselves, no less!

      Thanks for sharing, Alina!

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