Helping Your “Afraid to Fail” Child Cope With a Mistake

girl-missed-soccer-ballOne of the inevitable facts of life is that everyone makes mistakes. Granted, some mistakes are more significant than others and harder to get over, but they are a part of life. How individuals deal with those mistakes is significant to their self-esteem.

Children with high self-esteem appear much better at coping with their errors. Watching children with positive self-perceptions deal with an error is always a magnificent sight. These children literally stand up, brush off their knees, and say, “Well, I blew it. What should I do differently next time?” They recognize that a mistake was made and admit the error. Most importantly, these children also develop a strategy to change the mistake and not do the same thing again. What they do, in reality, is learn from their errors.

The process of making and learning from mistakes is an extremely valuable life skill because learning involves risking. Every time children risk, they will not always be right. But, because they’ve tried something new, there’s always the chance they will succeed. Each new success enhances self-esteem. Each esteem-enhancing experience refuels their desire to try again…and again…and again.

Children with low self-esteem deal with making a mistake quite differently. More often than not, these children use the experience to devalue themselves. “See, I told you I couldn’t do anything right!” is the way children with low self-esteem respond. Instead of looking at the error as an opportunity to learn, these children interpret the experience as a reason to quit and “never do that again.” The experience certainly was not self-enhancing; instead, it was self-devaluing.

The tragedy is that these children could have learned from their experience. If these children had known, “It’s OK to make mistakes…mistakes are how you learn,” the experience would have been seen in a different way. You can help your child cope with mistakes by offering him/her strategies to turn mistakes into learning opportunities. In the process, you can provide your child with an opportunity to enhance his/her self-esteem.

There are many ways parents can help erase the idea that “mistakes are bad.” Keep in mind that changing behavior takes time and consistency. Finally, remember that your own way of dealing with mistakes is the most important lesson your child can ever learn on the subject. What follows are some suggestions to help your child erase the fear of making mistakes:

1. Making Mistakes is “OK”

Tell Your Child, “It’s OK to make a mistake.” Too many children are suffering from perfectionism. They try to be perfect. When a mistake happens (as it’s bound to from time to time) the child is devastated and interprets this as meaning he/she is “unworthy.” Every now and then, tell your child, “It’s OK to make mistakes. It happens to all of us.”

2. Admit Your Own Mistakes

It is important for parents to admit they do make mistakes. Children see you as “all powerful and all knowing.” Obviously, parents do make mistakes, but, often-times, they keep them to themselves. Tell your child a mistake you’ve made recently. Discuss a mistake you remember making as a child.

3. Model Turning Your Mistake Around

Yes, parents make mistakes, but high-achieving individuals learn from their errors. As you admit your mistake, remember to tell your child what you will do differently the next time. You could say, “I made the mistake of… and this is what I’ll do instead….”

4. Share Mistakes of Famous Individuals

Anytime the opportunity arises, point out a mistake made by a famous individual so that your child recognizes mistakes happen to everyone. Books are rich with sources. Newspapers always have fresh ideas. Here are a few examples you could use:

  • Abraham Lincoln: Defeated for public office eight times before being elected President of the United States.
  • Wright Brothers: Took seventy times to get the Kitty Hawk off the ground.
  • Louisa May Alcott: Told by countless publishers that no one would ever read Little Women.
  • Babe Ruth: The year he hit the most home runs he had the most strike-outs.
  • Beethoven: Told by his music teacher that he was hopeless as a composer.
  • Michael Jordan: Cut from his high school basketball team.
  • Walt Disney: Fired by a newspaper editor for “lacking great ideas.” Went bankrupt several times and was told repeatedly to “get rid of the mouse because there’s no potential in it.”
  • Thomas Edison: Was told by his teacher that he was too stupid to learn anything.
  • Charles Darwin: Did poorly in his early grade and even failed a university medical course.
  • Woodrow Wilson: A Rhodes Scholar and President of the Uniter States didn’t learn the alphabet util he was eight and didn’t read until he was eleven.
  • Albert Einstein: Did not talk until age four or read until age nine. He failed his college entrance exams.
  • Wilma Rudolph: Contracted polio at age four, crippling her as a child. She was told she would never walk but decided to become a runner. She went on to win three Olympic gold medals and was named the “Fastest Woman in the World.”

5. Help Your Child Learn Positive Self-Talk

If you notice your child is very tense and concerned about making mistakes, help him/her learn to say inside his/her head a positive, affirming statement such as “I am calm and in control” or “I will try my best.” The more your child says the statement, the more he/she will begin to believe it.

6. Help Your Child Label the Mistake as the Problem, Not Himself

Often, the most self-devaluing part of making mistakes is not the mistake, but how the child chooses to interpret the error. Help your child admit he/she made a mistake (“I got this one wrong”) and then help him/her label the mistake as the problem and not himself/herself (“I forgot the the capital of Nevada”).

7. Plan a Strategy for Next Time

After your child can admit the mistake and relabels the mistake as the error (not himself/herself), the final step is to develop a plan for next time: “This is what I’ll do differently next time. I’ll study the capitals ten minutes a night for the next two weeks.”


UnSelfie 140x210Teens today are 40 percent less empathetic than they were thirty years ago. Why is a lack of empathy—along with the self-absorption epidemic Dr. Michele Borba calls the Selfie Syndrome—so dangerous? First, it hurts kids’ academic performance and leads to bullying behaviors. Also, it correlates with more cheating and less resilience. And once children grow up, it hampers their ability to collaborate, innovate and problem-solve—all must-have skills for the global economy. The good news? Empathy is a trait that can be taught and nurtured. UnSelfie is a blueprint for parents and educators who want activate our children’s hearts and shift their focus from I, me, and mine… to we, us, and ours. It’s filled with common-sense solutions based on the latest science to help us raise compassionate, caring, courageous kids. It’s time to include “empathy” in our parenting and teaching! UnSelfie will be available in June at

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About the Author

Michele Borba, Ed.D. is the author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About Me World, and is an internationally renowned educational psychologist and a recognized expert in parenting, bullying, youth violence, and character development and author of 23 books including her new release, THRIVERS: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine. She is a regular NBC contributor who appears regularly on TODAY and has been featured as an expert on Dateline, The View, Dr Phil, NBC Nightly News, Fox & Friends, Dr. Oz, and The Early Show. She lives in Palm Springs, CA with her husband, and is the mother of three grown sons. Dr. Borba is a member of the PedSafe Expert team


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