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Helping your child cope with failure

Published on: January 01, 2007

It's no fun to lose. Even if your
child typically wins, chances are at some point he'll feel the pain of
being overlooked for the baseball team; of misspelling a word during
the spelling bee; of bungling the geometry exam that was supposed to be
a slam-dunk.

Maybe not. Maybe your kid's the one who always gets the A, wins the
election and wows the coach. But those kids are rather rare. Let's call
them "imaginary." Most children run up against assorted speed bumps and
setbacks along the long and winding road to becoming grown-ups.

That's why families need to be equipped with tools that will help their
children cope with failure -- even if failure happens just once in
awhile.

"When things go wrong, some parents want a quick fix -- and who
wouldn't?" notes Susan Small, director of student services at
Educational Tutoring and Consulting on Mercer Island. "They'd like to
put a simple band-aid on the problem."

But a thoughtful approach works better than the fast fix, she says. For
starters, parents should identify the problem their child's facing. Is
there a pattern or is it an isolated event?

"The response will be different if the student's dealing with on-going
concerns, such as ADD or learning disabilities," Small says. Parents
who suspect their child has a learning disability should seek help from
their child's pediatrician, teacher and the school psychologist.

If it's a single incident, try to find out what caused it, says Small.
"Were expectations too high? Were there family issues? Social
stressors?"

Take, for example, that first report card -- the one with real letter
grades instead of those carefully couched comments kids get in
elementary school. "For the first time, kids are getting real feedback
on their performance," says Michelle Trifunovic, assistant principal at
Edmonds-Woodway High School in Edmonds. "Some of these students will be
motivated by the progress report -- and others can be devastated."

It's up to parents to ask their child the right questions, Trifunovic
notes. "If there's a poor grade, find out what's behind it. Ask, 'are
you turning in your homework? Does this grade reflect a test score?'"
She says the next question should be, "How can I help you?"

Try to stay positive, advises Karen Dickinson, associate superintendent
for school support for the Tacoma School district. "You want to avoid
supporting their disappointment."

The standard clichés, such as "You'll do better next time," or "You'll
just study harder," don't give kids useful information, Dickinson
notes. "Those kinds of comments just leave the kid feeling mystified."
It's better, she suggests, to give the less-than-stellar score an
upbeat spin: "You got a 60, which means you know 60-percent of the
work. That's more than you don't know!"

Next, come up with solutions -- as many of them as you can, Small
suggests. This might mean making sure homework comes home -- and back
to class when it's completed. It might mean buying a second set of
textbooks, because your child keeps leaving hers at her desk.
"Sometimes it's something as simple as moving your child to a different
location in the room," says Small.

Students often encounter their first hurdles in middle school when they
find their old study habits don't measure up, Small says. "In middle
school, it's not just about memorized information anymore; it's about
application." Students accustomed to rote learning find that system no
longer works.

The solution? Teach your kids to study, she suggests. "They need to
actually absorb the information, not just get the assignment done for
the grade."

Begin by making sure they have a designated study spot, says Dickinson.
"Habit and routine are very important for student success. There should
be an expectation about homework that is very consistent."

Email the teacher if you want to get (or give) more information about
your kids. But don't try to rescue them. "They don't need you to bail
them out," says Trifunovic. "Remember you are trying to help them, not
take over."

Over-zealous parents with a penchant for stepping in to "smooth things
over" model lessons of a different sort. "Their children learn how to
wiggle their way out of things," Small contends. "Will it help them
succeed? Probably. Get into college? Probably. Feed their soul and help
their intellect? Probably not."

Older kids -- middle school and high school age -- should conduct their
own negotiations with teachers, says Trifunovic. That means discussions
about whether the student will re-take a test, do extra credit or come
in for help should come from the child, not the parent. "This is a life
skill that kids should learn. They have figure out how to be their own
advocates," she says.

Remember to praise your children for the good things they do, Small
advises. "Let them know you love them despite the glitches and the
setbacks." Some of what you tell them will just fall off their back.
"Say it anyway," she says. "They need to hear it; it's essential to not
giving up."

Linda Morgan, ParentMap's associate editor, writes frequently on education issues.

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